July 17, 2010

Oil cleanup options

So BP finally capped the oil spill.... Without getting into the long blame game who who caused it and their punishment, I've decided to go a slightly more... optimistic approach? Perhaps not the best phrase, perhaps more 'pragmatic'

I view oil spills a bit like I view innocents being convicted in the justice system. In spite of all our hopes, and whatever faith we may have in the system, at some point it will fail, if just by random chance alone, it's hard to deal with so many variables. I'm not going to say for a second that we should just go 'cold turkey' off of oil, that is at best a very poorly thought out bit of propaganda. Oil, whether we like it or not is an intricate part of our economy and how we build things. To go 'cold turkey' would lose many people their jobs and let's be honest, none of the current 'clean' methods of powering the country are currently at a level where it would support our needs. The only methods that would are nuclear, natural gas and coal(all of which have their own problems)...and even then we would still use oil as a way of making plastics, as well as other petroleum based products. This isn't to say I think we shouldn't research alternative fuels, far from it. the hippy in me would love to have the whole 'love mother earth' sort of movement go forward... I just don't believe for a second that it will magically change overnight.

Disregarding oil's problems ecological, technological and economical this leaves the issue of how to clean up oil when it does spill(and as resources become lower and we dig for it more zealously it most certainly will) how do we fix it? As shown with the gulf coast oil not only affects the local ecology, but the local economy adversely. So how does one clean up oil spills effectively, keeping in mind both the economic and ecological ramifications? How can I do this while making it both informative and not completely depressing?

The answer is simple. I will rate the current ideas in order of what I view as effective and just plain cool

Burning off the Oil

The current modus operandi of most clean up efforts, namely simply burning the oil off. It is by far the cheapest way of doing it and it does indeed get rid of the oil, plus it has the added benefit of setting water on fire, which I'm always for, being that I have a strong connection to Cleveland Ohio and all.

Unfortunately, burning the water surprisingly isn't the best option. First of all it dumps a ton of pollutants into the air which not only affects the atmosphere but otherwise is harmful to plants, animals and people, lung cancer and all that. In addition, the fact that the water itself is actually ON FIRE doesn't particularly bode well for the creatures that dwell underneath, and by extension harms the fishing and tourist industries. And to top all of this off, the oil itself is burned off so there is no return on the investment, just pure destruction

Overall grade: F
This isn't the way you want to clean oil, it causes more problems than it solves, you exchange one ecologic disaster for another one. I'll grant you it is cheap, efficient and does technically get rid of the 'oil', but the side effects aren't worth it

Coolness factor: C
Fire.... on water! Need I say more?

Bacterial Clean up

Being a biochem major this one has a special place in my heart. There are already microbes that eat methane, so why not make some that eat oil? Well we're in luck, such creatures exist already...though they are not adapted to the environment and thus would die quickly. Given that this is a bacteria however and have such quick breeding cycles, selective evolution (usually known as breeding) would be a potentially viable solution.

The issues that arise however are twofold. Firstly it takes time to engineer creatures like this for a specific purpose, so even if it were developed it wouldn't be useful for some time. Luckily (or rather unluckily) oil spills take a long time to clean up, and that time could be used to tailor the organism to the specific environment.

The other issue to this though, is the simple fact that in ecology, once you start a system, it is very hard to stop it. The oil spill will kill off most of the native fish anyhow, especially given how slowly it would take to clean this up, and the dead fish would then sink to the bottom of the ocean, decaying and releasing more methane, which in turn, would kill more fish and give these bacteria more food in addition to the oil. When the bacteria die, they sink to the bottom, release methane, and supply the next generation. On the bright side it's a sustainable ecologic cycle... just not the one we want.

In related news, apparently you can buy them too!

Grade: C+,

Less overall impact but would change ecosystem for sustainable future. Still lose the oil. On the bright side, we would ensure more oil in the next few thousand years for our descendants.

Coolness: C+ .... I'm a bio nerd....Don't look at me like that

Nanomachine 'Grey Goo Scenario'

This one is for all of the engineers, and really only deserves a mention because it's a staple of sci-fi destruction of humanity fiction. The basic idea is that you create self replicating nanomachines to clean up the oil for us. This solution is a lot like the bacteria solution, except without the sustainable ecosystem, get rid of the oil, clean up, shut down robots, problem solved.

In theory anyway.

The first clear issue would be the sci-fi worry of these things taking over the world and consuming all organic life. Realistically, we need to have a much higher level of tech for this to be a worry, but it should still be a concern (why else have sci fi). Self replicating machines have yet to be found outside of science fiction and we are still quite a distance away from developing such things. Leaving aside that, the far bigger issue is the time frame it would take to design and make the machines, let alone the cost/reward of it. Things that are very small are notoriously hard to build and expensive by design, and it is not even the current thought in how to clean up the oil. It's not the most practical method of cleaning oil, unfortunately I feel this is the sort of thing that will remain in the realm of science fiction for some time

Grade: D+

Theoretically sound, but still far off and impractical in the face of cheaper and more effective options

Coolness: A

Anything that could possibly kill all life gets an automatic A in my book. Bonus points for being a man-made disaster, the most common in sci fi.

Skimming the Oil. AKA Kevin Costner is...Right?

Perhaps the least exciting, but the most likely to succeed, the idea of skimming the oil off of the surface of the water. Oil and water, as the saying goes, doesn't mix and it's still true. Literally picking up the oil does effectively clean up the pollutant (using water permeable nets no less), and not only that, but it actually reclaims the oil, which can then be sold and recoup whatever loses may be incurred. Simple enough right? It's not terribly efficient however...

Enter Kevin Costner, who just so happens to have this kind of technology, which he bought the patent for back in the 80's around the time of the Exxon Valdez oil spill (which by the way, we're STILL cleaning up). The basic idea comes from centrifuges, oil and water have different densities and by spinning them the two will separate from each other easily. Not only that, but the oil is usable again. This is actually one of the things BP has done recently, buying several ships from Costner. BP has bought 32 of the machines, which in theory could clean 6 million gallons of water a day. The one minor hiccup to this whole thing is the disperants that were placed in the oil, which has caused the oil to be under the water and not necessarily seen by the naked eye, making clean up more difficult. However this is easily fixed with the use of sonar and a hose to reach it. Over all I am actually very hopeful for this sort of clean up...

Grade: A
Clean, simple, effective and we get the oil back. What prevents it from being an A+ is the cost, but should these machines become more common, that should go down.

Coolness: D-

Do we really want to live in a world where Kevin Costner's vision of the future is correct?

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