As gulf oil keeps flowing, so do ideas on how to stop it


Inventors, engineers and flat-out dreamers have now sent BP more than 112,000 ideas about how to stop or clean up the gulf oil spill.

The company says it has people reviewing all these thousands of brainstorms. But after his idea was politely rejected last week, a frustrated Peter B. Ferrara Sr. said, “I don’t think it’s getting to the right people.”

Ferrara, 86, of Belleair Bluffs, said he doesn’t even care about getting credit for his idea, which involves inserting a bladder into the leaking well, and filling the bladder with hydraulic fluid so it expands and stops the leak. He just wants to help save the gulf.

“I’ve been so desperate that I was just in the process today of sending a letter to President Obama,” Ferrara said recently. He wonders if ideas like his are getting the “not invented here approach.”

Many would-be inventors believe they could cap the oil, if only they could drill through the bureaucracy of BP and the federal government to find someone gutsy enough to say, Yes, let’s try it!

“I think they’re young engineers down there and they don’t want to take the effort,” said Michael Engel, who owns a Tampa auto repair shop. He has submitted an idea with detailed sketches that involves covering the leaking well pipe with a locking sleeve and shutoff valve.

BP spokesman Mark Proegler says a group of 325 proposals is now ready for testing. But the vast majority of those ideas are for cleaning up the spill — not for stopping the leak itself.

“We don’t want to discourage any ideas,” Proegler said, but acknowledged that many have sent in spill-stopping ideas that “are not feasible at 5,000 feet. That’s hard for people to understand.”

Last week a news story said the well-regarded X Prize Foundation “wants to make fixing the BP oil spill a multimillion dollar competition.” The X Prize group helped to launch the first privately financed human space flight.

But the story was overblown. X Prize spokesman Michael Timmons said in an interview that yes, the foundation is considering a competition for cleanup ideas, but not for stopping the oil spill. And it hasn’t actually committed to the cleanup idea.

It’s not unreasonable to think regular folks sketching ideas on their kitchen tables could come up with some dazzling technical solutions. Look at the field of computers — “open source software” that is largely written by volunteers can rival and beat products from giants such as Microsoft.

But the leak is a mile beneath the sea surface, and the oil reservoir is another 3 miles beneath that. The water and oil are both extremely pressurized, and the oil is at a high temperature, said Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, who teaches petroleum geology at the University of Houston and has extensive oil drilling experience in the Gulf of Mexico.

Anyone coming up with a solution would need to be well versed in the mechanics of oil pipes, “but also in very high temperature and very high pressure environments,” he said.

Many people have suggestions that “are really good ideas if you were 10 feet below the surface.” But it’s a different world miles down under, he said.

Proegler, of BP, said there are promising technologies. He pointed to two cleanup ideas in particular that have made BP’s list of 325 that are “ready for testing.”

One is a centrifuge process that separates oil from water, developed by a company affiliated with actor Kevin Costner.

Another is Houston-based Clean Beach Technologies, which has been demonstrating its invention on the beaches of Pensacola lately. The device cleans the oil out of sand, said CEO Tony Watson.

Watson said his colleagues invented the process to separate oil from sand so that oil could be recovered from sandy “tar pits” in Canada. But it also can be used to clean fouled beaches, Watson said.

Watson, a retired Navy rear admiral, said his company’s officials made a herculean effort to contact BP and everyone else they could think of. Now that the company is recognized by BP as promising, he is optimistic that contracts for cleaning beaches will come soon.

Separately, another invention called the Heavy Oil Recovery Device, invented by a supertanker captain, has been used during the past month to skim floating tar balls from the gulf.

As to Watson and Clean Beach Technologies, he compares his company’s journey to someone outside a big football stadium looking in.

“We finally worked our way through the crowd and into the stadium,” he said. “We got through the sidelines and we’re now looking at the playing field. But we’re not quite on the playing field and playing the game yet.”

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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