The days and weeks pass, and oil continues to blast upwards from the bottom of the Gulf. And as time marches on, we continue to receive submissions from you about how to stop the gushing oil and protect the coastline. Because of the importance and magnitude of this disaster, and because we want to keep you apprised of various InnoCentive activity around this Challenge, we are glad to share during the coming weeks the details of several key solutions and ideas we've received from you. Today's post is a summary of a submission by Ed Melcarek, who is a seven-time winning InnoCentive Solver.
This is a stopgap "band-aid" containment solution at the deep water well head. The oil is directed to the surface with a flexible structure resembling an inverted funnel. This flexible structure is made of "Hypalon" fabric used in making inflatable watercraft, like Zodiacs. It is highly resilient to abrasion, tensile forces, and is inert to volatile hydrocarbons. The inverted funnel structure has ballast weight inside the outer rim pipe perimeter, and is lowered over the leaking wellhead on the ocean floor via a nylon rope tether.
Once in place on the ocean floor, it is not physically attached to the wellhead in any way, it simply directs the expelled oil, which has buoyancy, to the top of the funnel where it enters a pipe leading to the surface. A pump on the surface would egress the oil/ice slurry out of the polypropylene pipe.
Hypalon fabric is available in 8-foot wide rolls, and is designed to be joined together with adhesive. It can also be stitched together as added insurance for strength.
Once cured, the resulting seams are very strong in shear. The pipe to the surface must be polypropylene. It is cheap, available, and has buoyancy in seawater. It is easily welded and machined. It comes in standard 20-foot lengths so it has to be connected in segments. 8" IPS Schedule 80 is standard. Considering the wellhead is a mile deep, some 265 segments would be needed. The weight of the stainless steel bolts at the connections will make the pipe essentially neutrally buoyant in salt water, an important attribute when lowering and installing the structure into position.
This polymer is highly resistant to coatings of any kind, and has a coefficient of friction approaching that of Teflon. It is available up to 12" IPS, and is a standard stocked item readily available.
The pipe segments are bolted together vertically as the funnel is lowered to the sea floor. Provisions would be made to accurately position the funnel over the wellhead. A single guideline anchor on the wellhead structure could be sent to the surface. This would guide the funnel downwards through the mile-deep water column towards and over the wellhead, while the neutral buoyancy of the pipe would provide vertical stability and lateral flexibility in the water column. Nothing will adhere to the polymer pipe or the Hypalon composite fabric; not oil, ice, or any out-gassed compound from the crude.
The problem encountered with the 100 ton concrete structure was the accumulation of ice on the inside surfaces, blocking the flow of crude oil through the egress piping. Coating the inside surfaces of any concrete / steel structure with Teflon paint could be problematic in that it is not known how the coating behaves under the pressure and temperature. If it spills on the surface of the concrete, it would leave a nucleation site for ice to form and accumulate. And, rather than trying to supply heat from the surface in some form like steam, to abate the crystallization, this solution simply prevents the ice compounds from adhering to the incident surfaces. The ice crystallization will still occur, but will not adhere to the inside surfaces of the polymer materials, leaving the oil / ice slurry completely mobile. The oil, ice and water slurry can be pumped out at the surface through the polypropylene pipe. The propylene cable tether remains in place to provide stability with regards to currents, while the pipe deflects in the water column. The simplicity of the proposed solution also provides it to be deployed in a number of different leakage locations, as is the case at the site. The time window for fabrication and deploying this solution would be a fraction of a re-design and re-build of any concrete / rebarrred structure, including cost.