Cornstarch Proposed as a Solution to Future BP-Style Oil Spills

Cornstarch Proposed as a Solution to Future BP-Style Oil Spills

As regular readers of this site know, we covered the heck out of the BP oil spill, which is just about one year old now.

Of course, after the spill was capped and it moved out of the limelight, we also turned our coverage elsewhere, and as a result we missed a little gem from earlier this year, one that resurfaced on NPR this past weekend.

What it covers is research, suggested during the spill as a possible solution and announced in a press release earlier this year, that proposes using a cornstarch mixture to plug up the oil well, rather than the heavy drilling "mud" that was tried, and which failed.

NPR's Richard Harris covered the story last weekend:

[T]he article describes how engineers might have been able to stop the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico last year using a child's plaything: oobleck. It's a weird mixture of cornstarch and water. When it moves slowly, it flows like a liquid. Move it fast, and it freezes into a solid....
The problem, as [Jonathan Katz, a physics professor at Washington University in St. Louis] saw it, was that oil and gas blasting up the well tended to break up the drilling mud into fine particles, and a light mist like that ends up getting shot up the pipe and dumped onto the seafloor.
Katz wondered whether there was some kind of fluid that wouldn't immediately be dispersed into tiny particles when it encountered the rapidly flowing oil.
"I realized after a while that cornstarch suspension — oobleck, the kids call it — has this wonderful property that if it's not flowing rapidly, it's a liquid that flows pretty well," Katz says. "But if you try to make it flow rapidly, it suddenly turns stiff and it doesn't flow at all."

Oobleck versus a stream of bubbling hot oil? Really? Yep.

Sounds like a potentially interesting -- and significantly greener -- solution to the catastrophe in teh Gulf. Let's hope nothing like that ever happens again, but if -- and probably when -- it does, let's hope further that more radical ideas like Katz's are considered.

On a decidedly extreme tangent based on "radical ideas," Harris's NPR report casually mentions that Katz was dismissed from the science panel that helped him get his idea in front of Energy Secretary Steven Chu. A little research dug up this report from Businessweek, which notes that Katz has written on such topics as "What Is Political Correctness," "In Defense of Homophobia" and "Why Terrorism Is Important." Goes to show that you just never know where potentially good -- and potentially bad -- ideas will come from.

Photo CC-licensed by Andrew M. Curran.