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A bag and a trap. Oil spill invention is a keeper

COLUMN ONE

'It's not rocket science, but it works,' a BP official says of Gerry Matherne's device, one of thousands engineers have sorted through that claim to clean up the sludge in the Gulf of Mexico.

July 21, 2010|By Bob Drogin, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Bayou La Batre, Ala. — Gerry Matherne recently built a helicopter from "a bit of this and a piece of that," which made him a minor star on YouTube when the engine died in midair and he didn't. He somehow landed the crippled craft beside power lines.

"I'm always inventing something," said the gruff 61-year-old captain of an oil supertanker. "When I was a boy, a wristwatch was never safe in my hands. I'd dismantle anything to see how it ran."

So when Matherne learned of the runaway BP oil leak, he considered it a personal challenge. He drove to a hardware store, bought some window screens and PVC pipe, and began to tinker.

The result is the first device that, according to BP engineers and Coast Guard officials, promises a faster, cheaper and more efficient way to remove spilled oil than traditional skimmers in the Gulf of Mexico.

Matherne's apparatus looks like a trash bag in a big crab trap, but it works like a sieve to snag sludge and oil while seawater passes through. BP officials say they aim to build and deploy 100 units by the end of the month, and add more after that if needed.

"This is the first new technology that we've taken from concept all the way to deployment," said Raymond Butler, who runs what he calls BP's skunk works, a team of engineers who were given free rein by the oil giant to build something — anything — to ease the nightmare of the nation's worst oil spill.

"It's not rocket science, but it works," Butler added.

The late entry in the cleanup effort is unlikely to satisfy critics who accuse BP and the Obama administration of moving too slowly to remove the oil that gushed for nearly three agonizing months from the now-capped BP well.

But it's still an achievement. Scientists, oil industry experts, bloggers and kibitzers of all stripes have phoned and e-mailed more than 120,000 suggestions, sales pitches, engineering diagrams, crayon sketches and more to BP. Ideas have flooded in from around the world, including some in Arabic and Russian.

Many proposals come from companies offering proven technologies, supplies or services. Others run the gamut from far-fetched to wacky.

Some people, for example, proposed tossing dynamite or depth charges into the slicks, which would kill fish but destroy little oil. Others urged exploding a nuclear weapon in the seafloor to seal the ruptured well.

That would violate U.S. and international law, and could wreak far more devastation than an oil leak, among other problems. BP has ruled out "use of explosives, including nuclear," according to its website.

Most suggestions are less extreme, but no less impractical.

"We get a lot of ideas that have what I call 'black box magic,' " said Tony Rotolo, a BP engineer who helps screen the deluge of cleanup schemes. "You know, 'Put the sludge in here and clean water comes out there.' I wish it were that simple."

BP has assigned 30 engineers to pick out the most feasible proposals. Only a dozen or so ideas have made it off the drawing board and into field tests.

One company proposed shooting high-pressure air hoses at beaches soiled with tarry oil residue, for example, and then using powerful vacuums to suck up the muck.

"It seemed like a decent concept," Rotolo said. "But when we went out to test it, it made a complete mess. The sand and the tar balls went every which way. The only thing that got sucked up was clean sand."

The biggest and most costly disappointment has been the A Whale.

Distressed about the Deepwater Horizon disaster, Taiwanese shipping mogul Nobu Su ordered a 1,100- foot-long oil tanker converted into what aides called a super skimmer, able to slurp up to 21 million gallons of oily water a day through gill-like vents in the bow and separate most of the oil in internal tanks.

But the A Whale has flopped. After the giant ship was tested at the spill site for two weeks, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Paul Zukunft, the federal on-scene coordinator, announced that it had recovered only "negligible" amounts of oil.

"The main problem is the oil isn't thick enough," said Frank Maisano, spokesman for TMT Shipping, owner of the ship. He said high waves and BP's heavy use of chemical dispersants had thinned and broken up the oil, which neutralized the A Whale's complex intake and decanting systems.

Matherne's gadget, officially called the Heavy Oil Recovery Device, or HORD, is far simpler.

It uses a 6-foot-long bag made of the same synthetic mesh in lawn furniture. The bag is secured inside a large cage with an open end, like a trash bag in a kitchen pail.

When the floating cage is towed at slow speed, the porous bag captures weathered oil — the tarry globs that wash ashore — but lets seawater flow through. After a ton of tar balls fills the bag, it is cinched closed and hauled on deck, and a clean bag goes in the cage.

The cost: $42 per bag and $6,000 per cage. Matherne already was working for BP so he will not get paid for the invention.

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