Dr. MichaelPravica is a physics professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and he has been appealing to elected officals and BP to hear his idea for what may be the best temporary solution to stop the gushing oil. His expertise is in high-pressure physics, which is what he got his Harvard Ph.D in. He studies hydrocarbons — constituents of oil — under extreme conditions. So far, only the local NBC affiliate has taken an interest and tried to get the word to BP. In a letter to interested parties, Dr. Pravica wrote:
From my point of view, we are not even close to solving this problem because BP doesn’t understand the basic physics of what’s going on in the world of very high pressures and/or still wants to save their wellhead. It’s very difficult when you know exactly where BP is going wrong but feel powerless to stop it.
In the first of two youtube videos, the UNLV professor demonstrates the unsuccessful methods that BP has tried so far, and shows why they don’t work. He also expresses his concerns that so far BP has been looking for a fix that preserves the blowout preventer and so all the solutions have prioritized that goal rather than the goal of stopping the flow as quickly as possible.
(Dr. Pravica explains that the wellhead, which is just the apparatus on top of the wellbore. It’s job is to seal the wellbore if there is a catastrophic leak. Thus, it’s like a check valve. The wellhead, on the other hand, couples with and seals the wellbore and surface rock. The main issue is that the BOP failed but the top of the wellbore (the wellhead) is probably damaged as well because the BOP was mechanically compromised when the Deepwater horizon fell into the gulf breaking the pipe below it that was connected to the top of the BOP.)
Dr. Pravica estimates that the oil pressure is at least 17,000 pounds per square inch, and says, “I don’t know of any traditional valves that can seal 17,000 psi.” At this point, he explains, the situation calls for a brute-force solution, which he demonstrates in the second video.
BP has all the more reason to try this approach, given that there’s no guarantee that the BOP and wellhead are still any good anyway. Additionally, he says, “we’re dealing with higher pressures than would normally be used in these kinds of fittings, because we’ve had a catastrophic failure of all the protection apparatus.”
His solution? Deform the pipe. The easiest way is through brute force such as taking a series of multi-ton concrete slabs that would crush the BOP, sealing the leak imperfectly. “You will deform all the material around this hole in the earth and you will form a seal,” he explains.
Because the BOP is four storeys tall and so there may be doubts about the possibility of crushing it (though explosives could take care of that), another possibility — one that would even maintain the integrity of the BOP, is this: Drop a slab of concrete equipped with a concrete stopper at the bottom — perhaps laden with a layer of soft, dense metal such as lead or copper — onto the pipe above the BOP. This “goes in and seals and deforms, squishing all the material. Then you put flat concrete slabs until you seal it. It wouldn’t be a perfect seal, but it would severely slow this down until a better solution can be found.
“You would be classically deforming this hole in the ground by crushing it — either crushing the BOP or blowing it out of the way or dropping slabs onto it until we can find a permanent solution.”
In his desperate attempt to bring attention to his idea, Dr. Pravica has made a youtube appeal stating:
I am asking that our political leaders set up a clearing house for ideas and information to be exchanged freely between scholars who might be interested in this problem. I am worried that BP has not been forthright and honest in all of the discussions and data that is released about the Gulf oil incident, and I feel it’s imperative at the moment that we share data so that we can jointly try to find solutions, because I think now this crisis is so disastrous that it’s beyond the scope of BP’s abilities to solve it. I ask my fellow Americans to encourage our elected officials to begin to take over this project and stop this disaster in the Gulf because life is truly hanging in the balance.
So far, Dr. Pravica has received a form letter from Harry Reid’s office and nothing from other local politicians he’s contacted. “It’s really sad,” he says, “when a high pressure physicist with a Ph.D. from Harvard is unable to convince our scientifcally-illiterate leaders on what’s really going on and how to resolve it.”
He also sent a letter to the Office of Fossil Energy at the Department of Energy, to a Dr. Guido DeHoratiis, Jr., summarizing his approach:
My recommendation is therefore to stop or slow the flow of oil as soon as possible to reduce hole erosion by dropping large and heavy concrete and/or dense metal slabs on the hole to crush the BOP and supporting apparatus and seal the hole. Simultaneously, we should keep drilling the relief wells to finally plug the hole with heavy mud/rock. We can slowly remove the slabs as we are doing this to equalize pressure. By initially resorting to the slabs as a temporary solution, we reduce or stop the leaking oil and stop the possibility of further eroding the wellbore in a region where we have little control.
In an as yet unpublished letter to the NY Times, Dr. Pravica was a little more indignant about BP’s and elected officials’ response to the crisis:
As a high pressure physicist who studies hydrocarbons under extreme conditions in the megabar regime (million atmosphere) and below, I am deeply disappointed by the totally clueless nature that our business and political leaders have demonstrated about the gulf oil catastrophe which is going to spell the ruin of our country and which also demonstrates the danger of scientific illiteracy amongst our leaders when we live in a world dominated by science. I am also disappointed that none of the high pressure scientists whom I know have been consulted on this crisis. In the world of extreme conditions, common methods to seal high pressure leaks just don’t work. We need people with expertise at extreme conditions to work on this problem.
As an example, I have been consistently frustrated by the lack of information about this crisis that merely delays a proper solution. As a physicist, I can only properly solve problems when supplied with as much information as possible. For example: what is the actual width of the pipe and its’ thickness? What is the composition of the pipe and its tensile strength (T301 Stainless steel? Iron? Molybdenum? Titanium?) What is the composition of the concrete used and its yield strength? Where are the schematics of the BOP? What is the velocity of the fluid flowing out of the pipe? Much of this data is, I suspect, company intellectual property and thus BP has been hesitant to release it. Thus, as expected, I have yet to find a professional website that gives real wellhead parameters (not guessed) and not just a unidirectional website/black hole for suggested solutions that end up being ignored. Thus, by depending on BP to “solve” this crisis, the full potential of innovative and ordinary Americans is quashed.
Given the length of time that has elapsed in this crisis, I think that scope of the problem is beyond BP’s ability to solve it. President Obama should declare a national emergency and allow Americans’ collective creative spirit and knowhow to help solve one of the worst environmental catastrophes ever in the US. He should also establish a government center that serves as a clearinghouse for ideas and data that can be shared with all Americans - not just BP-paid engineers.
Thus far, BP has been trying to preserve the BOP and wellhead. However, given the collapse of the enormous Deepwater Horizon, the BOP and wellhead were mechanically compromised which makes it highly likely that the mechanical valves and support infrastructure were damaged implying also that the hole underneath was damaged. With oil pressures greater than 20,000 psi gushing from the hole (far higher than pressures of 5,000 psi typically contained by gas cylinders), you just can’t fix the BOP and must instead try a “brute force” solution that seeks to permanently crush and seal the hole.
I recommend dropping large concrete slabs one after the other (hundreds of tons each). The first slab could have a malleable but dense metal such as lead affixed to the bottom to plastically deform along the contour of the seafloor. After sufficient numbers of slabs stacked upon each other, there would be enough pressure to crush the BOP/wellhead infrastructure and seal the hole just as applying pressure to a would helps stop bleeding.
We just can’t afford to wait for more failed solutions from BP. Time is truly of the essence. Please, President Obama, declare a national emergency to harness all of our nation’s incredible potential to solve this catastrophe once and for all.
In a related letter to the Las Vegas Sun responding to a reprinted NY Times article, Dr. Pravic wrote:
…I do not understand why BP has been adding the dispersing chemicals to the Gulf of Mexico, which may actually make matters worse.
The essence here is that if we allow the lighter oil to rise to the surface, it is easier to collect/separate and/or burn away than when dispersed in the sea. Adding dispersants/detergents alters the biochemical balance in the Gulf by contaminating it with more chemicals (that may harm life) on top of the toxic oil and, worse yet, may starve the Gulf waters of oxygen as certain bacteria can apparently metabolize/degrade the oil but need oxygen to do so.
Can the bacteria do this successfully at all depths, as not all life can function properly, let alone exist, at 160 atmospheres of pressure and near freezing temperatures on the floor? Adding dispersants to surround oil droplets may also frustrate the ability of the oil to rise to the surface, making it very difficult to remove.
It seems to me the primary reason for using the dispersant is to reduce the visible and dramatic effect of this public relations nightmare for BP and not to truly clean this mess.
Is anyone listening?
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