BP's Big Box Solution

By Nicole Allan
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The latest installment in unprecedented technology BP is using to try to staunch the Gulf Coast oil spill is a 98-ton, four-story steel box.

A team of Louisiana engineers frantically constructed the box -- which, despite its right-angled profile, is being referred to as a "containment dome" -- and is planning to lower it nearly a mile into the ocean today. The plan is to use the box to trap the two remaining leaks and funnel the gushing oil up to the surface and onto a ship.

Like the chemical dispersants BP is pumping into the ocean, the containment dome is not a new technology. But just as the dispersants have never been used in these quantities before, containment domes have never been used in waters of this depth. Risks include ice that could plug the funnel, weather that could hinder containment efforts, and unpredictable and potentially explosive mixtures of gas, oil, and water. Experts suspect that the original rig explosion was caused by gas shooting up through the oil well -- could a similar effect occur within the containment dome?

David Clarkson, BP's vice-president for project execution, told the New York Times, "I'm worried about every part."

If everything goes as hoped, the dome could collect up to 85 percent of the leaking oil. Since there are no prior attempts to evaluate, however, BP would not rate the technology's chance of success.  

Continuing containment efforts include controlled burns of oil on the water's surface, the drilling of relief wells to halt the flow of oil, and miles and miles of booms.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2010/05/bps-big-box-solution/56303/