BP tech team: Priority is to 'see' oil underwater

A "skunk works" team is considering a wide range of technologies to clean up oil in the Gulf, using ideas from outsiders at a scale never done before.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

Everything from high-tech imaging gear to plastic bags with screens is being tested by a "skunk works" team at BP set up to evaluate cleanup methods in the Gulf of Mexico.

The oil company's High Interest Technology Team, based in Mobile, Ala., is currently sifting through thousand of proposals to fix the leak or reduce damage to the environment. BP recently began testing some new products, including a machine that removes oil from sand and an oil-water separator made from hardware store components, including plastic bags, mesh from lawn furniture, and plastic pipes.

Evaluating Gulf oil cleanup technologies (photos)

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In a break with past procedures, the HITT group is taking a significant number of proposals from outsiders. The setup reflects how severe the problem is and how the months-long disaster has caught the attention of inventors eager to address the problem.

"This is unique to this response," said HITT worker Bob Acker, a retired Coast Guard commander working with 30 years experience in disaster response. "In every event we've had, it's the responsibility of the incident command to test alternative technologies...but it's never been done at this scale before."

BP employees have decided that it is worth testing only about 30 products out of about 150 that have been seriously evaluated so far. That compares with about 120,000 submissions, with about two-thirds focused on techniques for stemming the leak.

That low number of technologies considered viable by BP lends credence to critics who say BP's "crowdsourcing" program of soliciting ideas from outsiders is mostly geared at fixing its image.

But Acker said BP, which is working with a Coast Guard-organized committee to evaluate cleanup methods, is seriously considering suggestions, even if many of them are not feasible.

"I was familiar with probably 80 percent of the ideas," he said. "The other 20 percent were new technologies I had never heard of, developed by NASA and national institutes, educational organizations, or entrepreneurs."

Imaging and sonar
In terms of cleanup, the priority at this point is locating the oil in the water to test whether products can effectively recover oil before it reaches the beach, Acker said. In some cases, the most promising approach is to adapt commercial equipment with tools developed in the past for oil disasters.

For example, BP is experimenting with fishermen in Pensacola, Fla., to use high-end fish finders as a way to "see" oil in the water column and to take samples using older products, such as specialized nets for capturing plankton and bottles used to find tar balls in the water.

Unmanned aerial devices equipped with cameras and radar systems are also slated for experiments, Acker said. Depending on the weather conditions, good images can help locate oil at the surface or see where floating seaweed, vital to the local ecosystem development, is soiled with oil. In addition to images, he said BP will use spectral analysis techniques, originally from NASA, to get a better read on the state of the water column.

"We're using these technologies to look underneath the water," Acker said. Once located, BP can take samples to test for the oil content.

A number of companies have suggested adding microbes to the water to remove oil, an approach that has not yielded good results in the past, according to an oil cleanup expert. BP has a team set up to evaluate different proposals around chemical solutions or bioremediation, which is using natural microorganisms that can digest oil to speed up natural processes.

Many proposals involve some sort of machine to separate oil and water. Four onboard centrifuges made by Kevin Costner-backed Ocean Therapy Solutions are being tested on a vessel now. But BP has determined that many devices are not viable. As it considers cleaning the beach, once the oil gusher is definitively plugged, the HITT team will need to take a measured approach, Acker said.

"One of problems is that you can apply new technologies in an uncontrolled way, which can create more harm than good," he said.