Saturday, May 8, 2010

Oil Containment Silo: More Questions Than Answers

BP lowered a building resembling a silo over the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico. It was hoped that the structure would mostly contain the oil at that point and allow it to be piped out to the surface. On the initial attempt, though, it didn’t work at all. It turned out the building was much too small to serve this purpose, and the results will give physical chemists and perhaps geologists some puzzles to ponder.

Gas hydrates — think of them as methane ice — filled up the silo, threatening to lift it well above the sea floor, and preventing any significant amount of oil from entering.

The silo has been set aside, still on the sea floor, as engineers try to figure out what to do. A much larger silo, almost like a refinery, will probably have to be designed and put in place. This structure will separate the gas hydrates from the oil and allow each to be pumped out to the surface separately. Before this design can be put together, though, some questions in basic science will have to be answered.

It is not the easiest scenario for basic science research, with the clock ticking and all the beaches and wildlife of the Gulf of Mexico at stake. You could make a case that this scientific knowledge should have been assembled before the oil well was drilled. Now that we are here, though, I believe there is reason to hope that scientists can come up with these answers in time to make a difference.