How Tech Will Ultimately Solve the Oil Spill

An underwater camera captures oil and gas at the site of the capped well head in the Gulf of Mexico, Monday, June 7, 2010. Engineers are working to close the vents on the cap. BP oil spill oil leak
Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.

The BP spill is giving Man, and his works to assert mastery over nature, a bad name. But just as technology caused this mess, technology will eventually end it. Below, the five most impressive technological forces at work in the Gulf saga.

The Rig

Yes, the scorched hulk of the Deepwater Horizon that set this catastrophe in motion now lies in ruins at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, but before it became the site of tragedy for eleven families and a symbol of capitalist hubris for the enemies of domestic drilling, the $500 million Horizon was a record-breaking technological dynamo, and an innovation spurred by the political pressures that are pushing drilling ever farther off our shores. Designed by Houston's Reading & Bates Corp. and built by Hyundai in 2001, the Deepwater Horizon was one of a small number of semi-submersible, dynamically positionable ultra-deepwater rigs. That is, unlike "jackup" rigs, with legs that rest on the ocean floor, the Deepwater Horizon floated on four massive stabilizing pontoons, which kept it stationary and level as waves washed beneath it. This allowed the rig to move anywhere it was needed, withstand 40-foot waves and 100-knot winds, and operate in water as deep as 10,000 feet.

Powered by two 9,775-hp, 7,000-kilowatt AC generators, and outfitted with awesome-sounding machinery like the "heave compensator," "cascading shaker," "hydraulic power choke," and "iron roughneck," it obliterated the previous world record - and its own nominal capacities - for offshore drill depth when it hit 35,055 feet in the Gulf.

The Costner Solution

In a world in which the combination of Hollywood and politics is often nauseating, Kevin Costner's unlikely emergence as a potential hero of the Gulf cleanup effort is a welcome exception. After the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill, and inspired by a fictional machine that turned urine into drinking water in his notorious 1995 flop Waterworld, Costner collaborated with his scientist brother and invested $24 million of his own money to develop a series of machines that can separate oil from water.

Essentially powerful vacuums attached to centrifuges, Costner's contraptions can reportedly remove oil from water at a rate of 200 gallons a minute with a level of 97 to 99 percent purity. Six of them are currently being tested by BP and the Army Corps of Engineers. Costner calls them "Ocean Therapy" machines, but if they manage to keep some of those oil plumes from hitting the Gulf coast, the region's inhabitants might call them "The Bodyguard."

The Mighty Mississippi

The effort to contain the oil that has already escaped the well is unprecedented in size and scope, encompassing a vast fleet of ships and nearly 20,000 workers employing a variety of often ingenious mitigation methods. In favorable weather conditions, controlled fires are burning through oil slicks pooled at the surface. Deeper underwater, powerful chemical dispersants are breaking up monolithic oil plumes into micro-layers, zillions of little oil droplets distributed throughout the water instead of heading toward the marshlands in sheets.

Miles and miles of oil booms - floating fences meant to collect oil and keep it from hitting vulnerable coastlines - are being deployed (some reportedly using human hair wrapped in recycled pantyhose, an excellent absorbent and proven oil collector).

But perhaps the most powerful weapon that responders have turned to is the force that has instigated so many catastrophes in the past: the mighty Mississippi. Swollen with floodwaters from the Ohio River, the Mississippi in mid-May was emptying into the Delta at a rate of half a million cubic feet per second. This gave the engineers manning the complex system of levees and spillways that protects New Orleans and its surroundings a bold idea: Open the floodgates and provide what one Louisiana flood engineer called "a freshwater wedge" to push back against the oil being being carried ashore by the Gulf currents.

The Disaster Bots

With its immense pressures, frigid temperatures, and pitch-black darkness, the crippled wellhead of the Deepwater Horizon might as well be on the dark side of the moon - if the dark side of the moon were also under water and gushing oil at a rate of 20,000 barrels a day. Shallow-water rigs have traditionally employed human divers to install and repair equipment under water. But since no conventional manned vessel can reach the depths of the leak, every effort to contain it must be done via truck-sized Remote-Operated Vehicles, or ROVs.

Piloted by joystick-wielding BP engineers from mission-control centers aboard command ships, ROVs like Oceaneering's 8,800-pound Millenium Plus model feature precision-grip hydraulic arms that are uncannily human in their movements. Most of the vehicles are fed power and telemetry via fiber-optic cables that link them back to the surface, but an increasing number are wireless and "autonomous." The machines have been instrumental in each successive effort to repair the wellhead, from the early attempt to reactivate the blowout preventer to the ill-fated containment-dome and "top kill" operations.

Plan F

The robots were also instrumental in the latest and (fingers crossed) most successful effort to contain the leak, using a "Lower Marine Riser Package" (LMRP) to fit a new cap over the failed blowout preventer. How did it work? First, ROVs were brought in to clear the mangled pipes from atop the failed blowout preventer, using a diamond-tipped circular saw and eventually a pair of giant shears. Then the drill-ship Enterprise, with an exposed "moon pool" and derrick amidships, positioned itself over a newly fabricated cap, which sat on the seabed near the blowout preventer.

It carefully lowered its LMRP drill pipe and maneuvered it into position to latch onto the cap, continuously pumping hot seawater and methanol "anti-freeze" through the system to keep it free of hydrates - compounds formed at the low temperatures and high pressures around the oil plume that would quickly crystallize and block up the works. The cap was brought alongside the newly smooth cut over the leak and swiftly wedded to it.

At first, opened valves allowed high-pressure oil and gas to flow through the cap, until hydrogen pumped down the LMRP could equalize the pressure, allowing oil to be directed up through the riser to be collected by the Enterprise at the surface. ROVs were then dropped in again to close the valves. With this system in place, BP is now keeping up to 10,000 barrels of oil a day from reaching the Gulf coast.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

By Daniel Foster:
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online