Undersea Complexity

Some of us have been watching intently BP’s live undersea camera in amazement (best reality show on TV) , appreciating how difficult and complicated the undersea work to plug the Macondo oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico appears to be.

The sequence of failed attempts at stopping the flow of oil tells us something about the state of understanding of our World.  The first containment dome, 40 feet high and weighing 100 tons, was lowered on May 8, but it plugged up with icy gas hydrates that prevented the oil from flowing up pipes into the waiting ship. Then engineers tried a much smaller four by five foot containment dome called a “top hat”. That did not work.

On May 16, day 24 of the spill, Kent Wells (With a name like that, was he born for this job?), Sr. Vice President BP,  provided an operational and technology update where he presented the “insertion pipe” option.  In this procedure, a 4-inch pipe had been inserted 5-feet deep into the 22-inch wide riser, along with rubber baffles to direct the flow of oil to the surface.  Wells asserted that the difference in pressure between the surface and the oil exiting the riser would be sufficient to “cause a good percentage of the oil to rise”.  In his briefing on May 24, showed how much oil had been recovered from the well through the inserted 4-inch pipe.  The (cumulative flow) chart clearly shows that the daily flow is decreasing.

That same day, BP was preparing for the “definitive” option: the so-called “top kill” procedure.  The top kill procedure was designed to force pressurized heavy fluids known as ‘mud’ through the well’s blowout preventer and into the wellbore at rates of 50 barrels per minute.  The same day, BP COO Suttles acknowledged that there was a risk that the bulk of the mud might be diverted to the damaged riser, which is still connected to the BOP.   That is exactly what happened.

The failure of these attempts questions whether we possess the basic understanding of fluid dynamics to remedy the problem. The science of fluid dynamics is well established.  Leonhard Euler came up with the basic laws of fluid motion in 1759.   Navier and Stokes refined these equations in the mid-1800s.  Today, we have computer simulation programs, such as Flowmaster, that can be used to design pipe systems interactively in front of us.  Fluid dynamics, even in this instance, should be deterministic, predictable, and follow the basic rules of science and physics.

The interactions between ground pressure, the relative densities of the three fluids: water, oil and gas, and the effect of pressure at the bottom of the sea and at the top on these three fluids would appear to be a relatively uncomplicated problem, in light of everything else going on (disposal, logistics, politics and policies, impact on the environment.)

There are two possible causes to BP’s ineffectiveness: Either we, as a society, are unable to master the basic science behind this problem, or BP, as an organization, has not been able to draw this knowledge into focus, and put it to work to solve his problem.   Any thoughts?

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Gulf Gusher Dwarfs Previous Estimates, BP Will Inject Junk to Plug It

HOUSTON, Texas, May 13, 2010 (ENS) – Scientific analysis of a new video released Wednesday by BP shows oil and gas spilling from the broken Deepwater Horizon wellhead on the the Gulf of Mexico seafloor at a much higher rate than previously estimated.The analysis by Purdue mechanical engineering professor Steve Wereley obtained by National Public Radio found that the rate of flow could range between 56,000 and 84,000 barrels a day – at least 10 times the Coast Guard’s earlier, widely quoted, estimate of 5,000 barrels a day.

NPR also cited a separate analysis by Eugene Chiang, an astrophysics professor at the University of California-Berkeley, who calculated the rate of flow within a range from 20,000 barrels a day to 100,000 barrels a day.

Oil and gas escaping from the wellpipe broken off when the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded and sank in April. May 12, 2010. (Image courtesy BP)

BP officials have repeatedly said there is no way to measure the rate of flow from the broken pipe.

“There’s just no way to measure it,” said Kent Wells, a BP senior vice president, in a technical briefing Monday.

But calculations by Professor Ian MacDonald, a biological oceanographer at Florida State University, show an average flow rate of about 26,000 barrels (more than one million gallons) per day is spewing from the damaged well, five times more than the original estimate.

MacDonald’s research suggests that as much as 13 million gallons of oil was spilled into the Gulf of Mexico between April 20, the date the Deepwater Horizon exploded and caught fire, and May 7.

By comparison, the official estimate for the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska is 11 million gallons.

MacDonald used U.S. Coast Guard aerial overflight maps of the oil slick to estimate the total surface area of the oil spill, then applied standard guidelines to measure the thickness of the oil. By combining the two, he was able to provide a revised estimate showing that the oil spill is far worse than originally believed.

While BP’s first effort to capture the spilling oil in a containment dome for transfer to a ship at surface was unsuccessful last weekend, Wells and BP chief executive Tony Hayward say they are confident that the techniques they are planning to employ starting at the end of this week will shut off the flow of oil.

BP chief executive Tony Hayward briefs reporters, May 10, 2010 (Photo courtesy BP)

Hayward said, “We now have in Houston, a global industry effort. There are companies here from around the world. There is every major science and technology organization in the United States in this building today working on this problem. The learning from this will be very extensive and it will inform what needs to happen in the future.”

At the request of President Barack Obama, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Energy Secretary Steven Chu traveled to Houston this week to meet with Energy Department and national lab staff, industry officials and other engineers and scientists involved in finding solutions to cap the flow of oil and contain the spill.

The first containment dome, 40 feet high and weighing 100 tons, was lowered on May 8, but it plugged up with icy gas hydrates that prevented the oil from flowing up pipes into the waiting ship, so now engineers will try a much smaller four by five foot containment dome called a “top hat,”

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2 Responses to Undersea Complexity

  1. Jodi says:

    Quite lucid but probably easier said than done. since you have not addressed the possibility of external considerations I will do the same and ask: scientifically speaking, where to from here?

    Like

  2. Svetlana says:

    I struggle to understand how you came to such a “black vs. white” conclusion in regards to the current “oil-demic”. Considering this blog hopes to unravel the essence of complexity as a whole, I feel as though dictating two possible causes to BP’s ineffectivness is contradictory to the overall topic.

    You state that “fluid dynamics SHOULD BE deterministic, predictable, and relatively uncomplicated.” Yet, BP and most of the U.S. stuggles to find a solution to this disaster. Instead of questioning humankinds ability to grasp scientific understanding, should not the evolving complexity within the scientific field be a focus point? (ex: Fluid Dynamics- Environmental & Geographical changes)

    I will leave you with a closing phrase/term from Steven Colbert program: Intellectualized decline.

    Like

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