BP’s Top Kill Attempt Fails: Here Is a Method that Could Really Work

I’m sure that everyone was disappointed with the failure of  BP’s Top Kill tactic to stem the flow of oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico.  After three days of pumping 30,000  barrels of drilling mud enhanced with non-toxic agents to increase its weight, supplemented with a junk shot, in which golf balls and rubber scraps were added in hopes of clogging up the pipeline, the bleeding never stopped. In retrospect, it seems as if the attempt was akin to trying to stop a runaway fire hose by stuffing dirt into the nozzle. According to a BP technician interviewed who spoke to the NY Times on condition of remaining anonymous, “Simply too much of what we pumped in was escaping.”

The company seems to be fresh out of new ideas. Perhaps it is time to open this up to the thousands of innovative minds we have in this country. I propose that BP offer a $10 million reward for the originator of any idea that proves to be successful. That ought to be enough to get the creative juices flowing, while it would be a tiny drop in the bucket compared to the additional costs the company will be faced with if it has to wait until a relief well is completed in August–or longer–to stop the leak. They might ask “why should we?” We can answer that they should because everyone of us has been and will continue to be affected by this catastrophe.

At this point the company plans to go back to the idea of using a containment dome.  This cap will be smaller than the previous one, and they will attempt to connect it directly to the failed riser after they cut off the broken pipe. The maneuver will be difficult and complex and the company has already said it will not be a perfect seal, so at best it will capture “most” of the oil coming out. White House Energy Czar Carol Browner has raised concerns that this new approach could actually end up increasing the size of the leak if the pipe is cut and the cap is unsuccessful.

The previous containment dome failed when ice-like crystals began to form as they began pumping out the dome. The combination of ice and congealed oil clogged up the outlet.

It was this failure that gave 35-year veteran chemical engineer Alan Olson his idea for stopping the leak. Olson is a professional engineer registered in the state of Ohio. He contacted me last week to tell me about his idea and  I think it could work.

Here is a description of the idea in Olson’s own words[my comments in brackets]:

“Form the plug by inserting two lances, (small diameter pipes, maybe 2 inches in diameter)into the riser pipe. Start flowing water (could be seawater) through one pipe. Flow liquid nitrogen through the other pipe. The liquid nitrogen is cold, and will [further] cool as it expands, freezing the water and congealing the oil. Refrigeration could also be clamped around the outside of the pipe [if needed]. The plug has to stay frozen long enough to cap the well [with concrete]. Straightforward chemical engineering calculations can be used to engineer the pipes, flows and cooling. If liquid nitrogen does not seem the right coolant, it would be very quick to check other substances such as carbon dioxide. There is also expertise at NASA for understanding how liquefied gases behave as they expand to gases and cool.”

Let’s go back to our runaway fire hose analogy. Imagine placing a small tube through the nozzle and some distance down the length of the hose. Then, we begin to flow a very cold gas out of the tube. Initially the gas will be swept away by the rushing water. But after time, since the gas is coming out of one fixed point, a region of cold will be established around the tube. If sufficient gas is injected, the water will begin to slow and then freeze, which will further slow the flow and eventually a solid plug of ice will form.

The fact that oil congeals when cold will help the process as it will move more slowly through the pipe. As the flow slows down, the freezing will speed up.

Olson feels that, implemented correctly, this approach has a 95% chance of success. As a 28-year veteran mechanical engineer myself, I believe he could be right. To date, he has submitted the idea to EPA and BP but has heard nothing in response.


RP Siegel is a Professional Engineer with 45 US Patents to his name. He is also an author and the President of Rain Mountain LLC.

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com

6 responses

  1. The problem with the prize idea is that there are extenuating circumstances, like the depth of 5,000', the well pressure of 5,000 psi, and the hardness of of all the materials down there like high strength drill string. Lots of ideas would work if you could execute them with ROVs.

    The current idea of cutting the riser or wherever it's being done will allow the flow rate to increase until they get the cap on. Other than the fact that they might not actually be able to accomplish the cut, it's probably a good solution. Working with what they have now is like trying to seal a leaking garden hose with scotch tape without turning it off.

    The ice plug? Maybe. Wouldn't the ice form at the leak site, the cracks in the riser? Would stopping the flow there just blow the broken riser off? That too would increase the flow rate. The ice plug would need to be in or below the BOP. With the broken riser hanging there I don't see how you could get deep enough into the BOP.

    Speaking of the BOP, has anyone seen reports on the facts surrounding the BOP's ability to shear high strength drill string? I saw (and lost) a report that the BOP design was adequate for standard string (mild steel) but not for the HS string being used. Even if it could shear the string, it probably wouldn't be able to shear the joints (every 40' or 10% of the string). The report I saw mentioned another company that realized this and sold it to BP who used the inadequate BOP anyway.

  2. You could not stop a running mad cow, but you can drive it into a narrow street.

    The oil pressure in deep-ocean is too huge to stop its leaking. Only method is to collect leaking. Guys, try to use one or more huge upside-down-funnels to cover the leaking area and collect leaking materials from the funnel pipes at up ends. After most of leaking materials are forced to go through funnels, seal the rest area among funnels.

    Let “huge funnels” work.

  3. Liquid nitrogen was sucessfully used on the oil wells in Kuwait after the war. It is also used by fire departments in Russia. Its only “problem is that it works. BP/USgov et.al may have a hidden adgenda, and a bias against valid “unofficial “sugestions. The web site given for people to send their ideas on how to deal with the spill is run by BP;which may give you an idea of the fate of such communications.But ,what the hell, send something,it gives jobs to the sectetaries to open the mail and discard it.

  4. Liquid nitrogen is very good idea . this will work get the injection pipe down as fare as they can. it will cause a clotting effect. which can make a total block. it will give them time to use the mud and cement. and get a cap on. just do it . this will work.

  5. Liquid nitrogen is very good idea . this will work get the injection pipe down as fare as they can. it will cause a clotting effect. which can make a total block. it will give them time to use the mud and cement. and get a cap on. just do it . this will work.

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