Feature

Oil cleanup: Is any idea too wacky?

BP is receiving 5,000 suggestions a day from people insisting they know a better way to stop the oil from gushing.

“Desperate times call for desperate measures,” said Phil McKenna in NewScientist.com. With oil still gushing from its damaged well in the Gulf of Mexico, BP is receiving 5,000 suggestions a day from people insisting they know a better way. Proposals range from soaking up the oil with human hair to inflating a giant balloon inside the well to the ultimate game-changer—a nuclear bomb. Between 1966 and 1981, the Soviet Union detonated “at least five controlled nuclear blasts” to bury leaking wells under rubble; “all but one succeeded.” If you’re not keen on adding a heaping dose of radioactivity to a catastrophic oil spill, said Daniel Foster in National Review Online, actor Kevin Costner has a less alarming alternative. Costner has invested $24 million in large centrifuges that separate oil from water, at a reported rate of 200 gallons per minute, while achieving 97 percent to 99 percent water purity. BP and the Army Corps of Engineers are currently testing six of Costner’s “Ocean Therapy” contraptions. Who knows? Maybe they’ll work.  

In the deep sea, biology trumps engineering, said Fred Tasker in The Miami Herald. By biology, I mean “Alcanivorax borkumensis.” That’s the name of the oil-munching microbes that “occur naturally in water’’ and are deployed to clean up municipal waste and jet fuel spills. Unleashing a huge number of these little critters might help clean up “limited areas along oil-soaked beaches.” This is no time to go small-time, said Kieran Crowley in the New York Post. A 21-year-old engineering genius from Long Island, N.Y., Alia Sabur, has a more radical idea. Sabur told BP to surround a pipe “with deflated automobile tires,” insert it into the leaking well, and then inflate the tires with hydraulic fluid to form a seal. Sabur said BP told her that her idea was “impressive,” but hasn’t called her back.

I know of an even more impressive plan, said Jim Ash in the Tallahassee Democrat. Anthony Brown II of Boynton Beach, Fla., has proposed using “satellites and super computers to zap the spill with a beam that renders the oil harmless.” Brown says his plan entails manipulating the molecules of the “target matter,” i.e. oil, “through the induction of sonic energy or anti­matter.” Alas, when I asked Florida officials about Brown’s idea, I received this curt analysis via e-mail: “Not feasible.”

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