How Could Chemical Engineers Play a Role in Response to the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill?

A beach after an oil spill.
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How are chemical engineers responding to Deepwater Horizon? We'd like to hear from you and start a dialog. ChEnected has published a few posts about the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill, including:

But we recently asked a few experienced engineers to answer the question:

How Could Chemical Engineers Play a Role in Response to the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill?

Below are a few of the responses we received. Author and Remediation Consultant of Global Environmental Operations, David Russel:

There are several areas:

1) Immediate cleanup of the surface spills--reviewing and commenting upon technological improvements and recommending new technologies

2) Wetlands--improved biological systems and new innovations in cleaning and degrading oils.

3) Subsurface cleaning techniques involving low levels of oil removal or capture of oils at depths closer to the well heads in large volumes

4) Improvements to process safety and improvements of planning for response in conjunction with PSE, so that the conditions are a) safer, and b) response activities are adopted with a planned activity including prepositioned equipment. Development of a model response plan.

Ph.D and retired responder with 36 years in EPA's Emergency Response Program, Joseph P. LaFornara:

The use of dispersants at the wellhead is unwise. It is very likely causing the formation of the "mousse" that is hitting the marshes. The "mousse" is a water in oil emulsion that is stabilized by dispersant. Most dispersant directions say to apply it in the ratio of 1 part dispersant to 10 gallons of oil. It is pretty obvious from the live videos of the dispersant application at the leak 5000 feet below the surface that the ratio is closer to 1 part dispersant to 1000 or more gallons of oil. At these concentrations the dispersant will most likely dissolve in the oil and then pull water into the oil and stabilize the emulsion.

The "mousse" changes the characteristics of the oil and makes it more viscous and sticky. The "mousse" is much more difficult to remove than the oil itself.

Even if the dispersant is effective in aiding in the dispersing of the oil into the water column, dispersing a spill of this magnitude will pollute a huge volume of the Gulf's water. Chemical Engineers can join those who oppose the further use of dispersants 5000 feet below the surface.

Now it's your turn. Regardless of your particular field is your expertise, what do you have to say?

How Could Chemical Engineers Play a Role in Response to the Deepwater Horizon Gulf Oil Spill?

In addition, the Department of Energy has set up a place online where you can submit your ideas with respect to the oil spill cleanup effort. In this online form, you can describe your solution and its practical potential for widescale application:

Alternative Technology Response Form


Kendall's picture

all the news stories have been focused on the outrage and human impact, which is important, but as a young chemE I would be really interested in seeing a more technical discussion about it. For example: How is a blow out preventer, technically speaking, designed to work? How reliable is any kind of equipment 5000 feet under water?

abbas's picture

Dispersant was one of the options but got failed i suppose, but i wonder why is this happened. I think its its because of the salinity. but what other options are there. A

abbas's picture

nother point that confuse me is, oil can be some how sooner or later can be collected but what the gas that is coming out from it. how to collect it?

Ahra Kwon's picture

As a chemE I feel process safety is an integral part of our education and background. Effective and efficient process safety protocols could have managed to lessen the effects of the spill in the Gulf, but BP cut so many costs regarding PSM and maintenance that a disaster seemed imminent. I always ask myself if someone ever questioned, "What if all else fails?" BP wouldn't have had to deal with a mess this immense nor cause such an impact to the US, environment, wildlife, and people of the Gulf.

ehorahan's picture

As a Supply Chain/Ops person I am trained to "Assume There's a Problem" and we put processes and checks in place to ensure success and prevent issues. When you have been through enough "It can't get any worse, but then does" situations, you learn to think that way automatically. There were many failings on BP's part including out of date and quite possibly falsified documents on what to do in the case of a disaster (who was auditing that?). The very best that could come of this is that the other oil companies (or any company that deals with hazardous substances) begin looking at their own documentation, safety devices and fail safe controls and bring them up to date and train their employees. But back to the subject at hand. The point about the mousse was fascinating. I hadn't realized what they had been doing with the dispersant. I think what we need to do right now is stop the massive leak.

Robert S's picture

I had been wondering what the reasoning behind using the dispersant was. From the outside it seemed to me that it would be better to leave the oil untreated and then it would be easier to collect, unless you could achieve the perfect ratio and mixing - which would be extremely difficult. Even then are we better off with a well dispersed oil spill? The other point that I think everyone is afraid to talk about at this time (and might be a little off target) is the decision tree that got them to the moment of the incident. From what I heard there were several decisions made in the field with a group of assembled experts using data collected from the field weighing the options of being conservative (and delaying production) and taking some unquantified risk (because at a certain point there is no way of knowing). This is an extreme example with maximum benefit (high production value) and maximum risk (complete environmental disaster). It was a horrible result, but how often is a decision like this made in operations? I work in operating refineries around the world (in many locations with less than stellar safety records) and I come across this decision many times. It is on a much smaller scale - but similar theme. A limited amount of information is available, the best knowledge is collected for a meeting, and a decision must be made. Choices are usually move forward or halt operations. The customer is pleading that they do not have the time. Safety rules are very important, but when confronted with realities of a situation how do you keep the optimist thinking that we can make things work contained? When are you comfortable shutting a plant down or walking out on a job? I have sat in those meetings, the decision is not as easy as you would hope. And how do we learn from this event and prepare young engineers for these high pressure quick-fire decisions? I am not defending BP though, they definitely have a spotty safety record for these types of situations in the last 10 years or so. They probably need to reevaluate their decision making procedures.

ehorahan's picture

You raise a great point, and one that people forget in the midst of a crisis. Hindsight is always 20-20, but when decisions have to be made in difficult situations, even if you make an educated decision based on the information you have, it could end up poorly. The world isn't black and white - when the COO is telling you to keep the plant open no matter what.... there is always more to the story than meets the eye.

Roger W.Rubens's picture

I am a retired chem. engineer who had worked for National Starch & Chem. Co. One of National's products is Dry-Flo, a food grade material that is water repellent and used to improve flowability of hygroscopic powders. It is prepared by esterifying and cross linking corn starch to form an Aluminum Starch Octenylsuccinate. The starch base is a high polymer and the Octenyl group a long chain hydrocarbon. The result is a material that is hydrophobic and, more importantly, lipophilic (oil loving). It seems llike a good candidate for removing oil from water systems. The starch is a free flowing powder and could be sprayed as the dispersants now in use (emulsions that do not remove oil). Derivatization could be increased (not food grade) to provide greater lipophilic properties. It might be an effective oil absorber/agglomerator and should be tested!

Jerry Edmondson's picture

I'm a senior member and have been directly envolved in the design and application of petroleum processing equipment "at the wellhead" for over fifty years. I conducted the drillstem test for Phillips Petroleum of the first oil discovery well in the North Sea Eskofisk field. The Gulf of Mexico Macondo well blow-out stimulated me rethinking a concept I started working on way back then. I believe the DWOC(tm) deepwater oil catcher, I have devised has the potential of capturing all of the well fluids at the source and delivering the gas as well as the oil to storage. I will appreciate all comments and opinions.