What We’ve Learned from the Gulf Spill
In the future, relief wells should be drilled simultaneously with the main well.
by Michio Kaku
If the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico were a tragedy, it would be in three acts. In Act I, there was the chaos caused by a methane explosion that killed 11 workers and unleashed the greatest environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. In Act II, we saw the floundering of BP officials, as eight failed attempts were made to cap, siphon, stuff, smother or seal the leak.
We are now slowly entering Act III, where engineers have painfully learned some valuable lessons and are on the verge of slowly killing this raging monster.
The nagging question is: Why did it take so long? Why couldn’t they have capped the leak months ago?
For three agonizing months, BP’s engineers and executives were essentially making things up as they went along, conducting a billion dollar science project with the American people as guinea pigs. The basic science of stopping oil leaks at 5,000 feet below sea level should have been done years ago.
All eight failed attempts to control the leak might have worked if the blowout had taken place at 200 feet. The 1979 Ixtoc oil leak in Mexico, which was the mother of all oil disasters, took place at 160 feet and raged for 10 months. It was eventually stopped by a relief well. The lessons learned from that and other oil disasters gave confidence to engineers in the industry that they could handle any leak.
Physics are different at 5,000 feet than they are at 200 feet. The pressure at 5,000 feet is enormous, about 2,000 pounds per square inch. Think of placing a passenger car on every square inch of your chest. You would be crushed like an egg shell within a fraction of a second. Even military submarines cannot operate at those depths. Instead, special remote controlled robotic subs are required. They are often hard to control and sometimes even collide.
Furthermore, methane, which is found as a gas in our kitchen stoves, solidifies into an ice-like hydrate at those tremendous depths and cold temperatures. The original explosion, it is conjectured, was caused when heat was applied to set the well’s cement seal, expanding the methane hydrates into gas that shot up the riser pipe and ignited. The presence of methane hydrates also foiled the first attempt to cap the leak. Later, BP engineers had greater success by sending warm water down the pipe to prevent methane hydrates from clogging it without creating gas bubbles like the one that caused the explosion.
BP officials initially low-balled the size of the leak. Although they originally stated that 1,000 barrels of oil were leaking per day, they also released video that gave a startlingly different picture.
In our freshman physics courses we teach the students that the flow rate from a pipe is the product of the area of the pipe times the velocity of the fluid. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to multiply these two numbers. Even a simple back-of-the-envelope estimate of the leak from watching the video will give you estimates of 40,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil per day. Did BP officials knowingly release misleadingly low figures, perhaps because they can be fined more than $4,000 per barrel by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency?
In the future there should be much tighter controls on deep-water drilling, and there should be redundant systems on hand so that the well can be capped or siphoned immediately if the blowout preventer fails. Perhaps relief wells should be drilled simultaneously with the main well, since they are the gold standard for stopping oil leaks and work nearly without fail. There also has to be a standby fleet of ships with skimmers, centrifugal pumps and booms ready to handle oil once it is leaked.
More importantly, the basic science of plugging oil leaks at great depths has to be completed, so that any future tragedies will not be repeated as farce. Until we end our oil addiction and develop alternative energy sources, similar plotlines will no doubt recur.
The last round of Autographed Books & Photos are now available for purchase. A new community driven website is currently in development, so all proceeds from sales go towards the continued advancements of the Mkaku.org community including hosting fees and new software. Each of the books (Physics of the Impossible, Hyperspace, Beyond Einstein, Visions & Parallel Worlds are $40.00 and includes U.S. and International Shipping. You may also purchase all 5 Autographed Books for $150.00.
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I’m nearly done filming a second season of “SCI-FI Science: Physics of the Impossible” on The Science Channel. In this exciting new series, I’ve identified 12 more familiar science-fiction movie, TV and literature notions and technologies. I’ve been explaining how we can build some of these SCI-FI ideas into science fact and — once again — I want to know what YOU think of my designs.
The next two episodes will be: ”How to Stop the Rise of the Machines” and “How to Defeat a Cyborg Army” – I’m inviting lucky winners of our competitions to the studio shoots where I will reveal my designs.
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The Bizarre and Wonderful World of Quantum Theory—And How Understanding It Has Ultimately Changed Our Lives
|“In fact, it is often stated that of all the theories proposed in this century, the silliest is quantum theory. Some say that the only thing that quantum theory has going for it, in fact, is that it is unquestionably correct.”
Almost since its inception, the development of quantum theory has been built by some of the greatest minds of their day. Some of the framework for this theory can be traced back to the following discoveries:
– In 1897 the discovery of the electron proved there were individual particles that make up the atom.
|There was brief speculation in the media about using nuclear weapons to seal up the raging oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. I think this is a bad idea, from a physics point of view. Let me say that my mentor while I was in high school and at Harvard, Edward Teller, father of the H-bomb, was a firm advocate of using nuclear weapons to dig out canals and other grand engineering projects. The logic is this: when an H-bomb is detonated underground, most of its energy is in the form of soft X-rays, which deposit most of their energy in a large sphere, where it is absorbed and the energy turned to intense heat. (In the air, this ball of hot ionized plasma rises rapidly, with cold air coming in from the side, which gives rise to the familiar mushroom cloud).
|Up until just a few hundred years ago most people thought that the Universe was a stable, static place that had been here forever and would continue forever. Today we know that nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, we know that the Universe is a violent and continually changing place that was born in a mere nanosecond of time in the spectacular event we call the Big Bang. You may have heard the Big Bang referred to as the mother of all explosions but it wasn’t an explosion so much as an expansion. From a space that was infinitely small, the entire Universe expanded and continues even to this day -13.7 billion years later.
|Right now our most advanced robots are not quite as smart as we would want them to be. One of the most popular—Honda’s humanoid robot, Asimo—is quite sophisticated but you won’t be seeing one in your home anytime soon. If you want to lease one however, simply make out a check to Honda for $150,000 — per month! According to Honda’s Web site, they added intelligence technology which is capable of interpreting the postures and gestures of humans and moving independently in response.
Nuke the oil well? Dr. Kaku talks with Keith Olbermann (MSNBC) about the recent proposal of using a small nuclear device to melt the oil well shut in the Gulf of Mexico and what could go wrong as a result.
Disaster in the Gulf: Day 44 (June 2nd – NBC’s Today Show Interview with Dr. Kaku about BP’s latest effort to ‘Cut & Cap’ the damaged pipe in the Gulf and if the method will in fact work. BP plans to use a diamond edged tool (wire-cutters) to make a clean cut of the damaged pipe (one cut was made last night) and if the caps don’t work, the problem has essentially become magnified because now the holes are even larger than before and an estimated 20% increase of oil spillage is now a high possibility.
Dr. Kaku speaks with FOX News about the recent announcement in the enduring quest to create artificial life. Scientists claim that they’ve produced a living cell powered by manmade DNA.
The inventors call it the world’s first synthetic cell.
Dr. Kaku sits down with Keith Olbermann (The Countdown – MSNBC) to speak about how BP’s top-kill procedure is faring at stopping the oil in the Gulf and what other options are available to avoid a worst case scenerio disaster. Interview took place on May 27th, 2010.
Larry King will host a discussion with Dr. Kaku surrounding recent comments by astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who said in a documentary that there is likely alien life, but communicating with them could be harmful to the human race. Dr. Hawking’s belief is that a visit from an alien race might be similar to Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. The interview will air Friday evening (4/30) at 9 p.m., EST (and replay again at Midnight). Stay Tuned for further details.