At the TED Mid Atlantic conference, scientists, designers, and organizations called for a complete rethink of how oil spills are contained and cleaned-up. Susan Shaw, Director of the Marine Environment Research Institute, said the fragile Gulf coastal and marine ecosystems will take years to recover given the use of chemical dispersants to break up the oil. Shaw argued that the application of Corexit, a potent oil dispersant, “saved BP billions of dollars in fines,” but resulted in a “reservoir of toxicity” that will last for years. As a result, a new corporate culture is needed to ensure health and the environment are linked with profitability. In addition, to spur the develop of new oil spill clean-up technologies that won’t further damage the environment, the X Prize foundation has launched a one million dollar competition that aims to come up with cutting-edge solutions. Two MIT researchers proposed innovation concepts.
Shaw is now engaged in a Department of Interior external “strategic sciences working group,” which is set-up to “dissect the event” and determine the sources of human and ecosystem stress. The group of 14 experts has found that the human health impacts may be severe for the 11,000 who have been working on the spill clean-up without protective equipment. They found that “there is no safe level of exposure to carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic chemicals in oil; there may be chronic human health impacts; additional sensitive populations like women and the elderly will be harder hit; and oil dispersants actually increase the toxic reactions of dealing with the oil.” To understand that the oil and dispersants are toxic, Shaw said you only need to listen to the complaints of the clean up workers, which include palpitations, severe headaches, skin rashes, and bleeding.
The total effects on wildlife can’t easily calculated but so far thousands of fish and birds, hundreds of sea turtles and around a hundred whales and dolphins have perished. Shaw said the area contains some 15,000 species and 33 key wildlife refuges. The long-term impact on the Gulf’s varied ecosystems are still being studied (see earlier post).
Shaw concluded that the “litigious corporate culture” that may have driven BP to use Corexit needs to change. Instead, the culture of oil companies needs to “integrate health and environment into profitability,” an approach that can lead to more preventive measures, better preparation in the case of a spill, and less damaging clean-up solutions.
Given that current oil spill clean-up solutions are now 40 years old and lag far behind drilling technologies, the X prize foundation has launched a new competition aimed at spurring innovation in oil spill clean up technologies and revolutionizing the way spills are dealt with in the future (see earlier post). Some 350 interdisciplinary teams have already registered to win the one million dollar prize. Groups can still sign-up until January 2011.
Two registrants outlined their innovative early concepts:
Cesar Harada, a TED Fellow, and former project leader at MIT SENSEable City Lab, put together the “Open_Sailing” project, which is developing “Protei,” an “open hardware oil spill cleaning device.” Harada explained that only three percent of the oil was skimmed from the surface using booms, which “work quite well — they absorb 20 times their weight in oil.” However, boats have been pulling booms in straight lines through streams of oil, resulting in inefficient “intercept flow” as well as entanglements.
Boats instead need to drag “long-tail” booms in an “S” formation, but to do this the boat needs to be re-engineered for stability and the rudder needs to be moved up front. After testing multiple materials, Harada found that inflatable boats made out of reused plastic materials with heavy embedded sand weights and deep central rudders can navigate with long-tail booms the best. “These ocean-going Zeppelins go slow but stay up” and can skim more oil. The design concepts is “open source” and the materials are common so Harada hopes the design can be easily replicated. Watch a video.
Adam Pruden, a research fellow at MIT’s SENSEable City lab, calls for the launch of “Sea Swarm,” a network of ocean-faring roomba-like robots that can “mimic ants and think on their own as a colony,” while finding and absorbing 20 times their weight in oil. Enabled with WiFi, the solar-powered robots could communicate with each other about the locations of oil spills and weather conditions. “The robots would be autonomous, scalable, and adaptable.” They could also be used to gather trash from the great ocean garbage patches (see earlier post). The clean-up bots could reside on the sea indefinitely and be deployed wherever there was a clean-up job. “There would be a fleet of autonomous vehicles.” Watch a video.
Image credit: Sea Swarm / MIT