Science & Environment

Q&A: Franz Gayl

Franz Gayl, a former science adviser to the US military, has proposed sealing off the leaking oil well in the Gulf of Mexico using a massive conventional bomb.

BBC News asked Mr Gayl how the idea might work and how successful it could really be at stemming the flow of oil from the Deepwater Horizon well. Mr Gayl stressed that he was speaking only on his own behalf.

Franz Gayl: I am speaking on the record as a concerned American citizen. My views do not represent my employers, namely the Marine Corps or the United States Government.

My information sources in the development of the idea are all open source such as Internet, other news sources, and my education. Finally, the idea has not been subjected to rigorous modeling, and remains at this time educated guesswork.

BBC: How long-lasting would the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) bomb method be - would any additional techniques be required to secure the oil well longer-term?

FG: "If the implosive forces generated by the passing shock wave are sufficient to collapse metal plumbing and related low density cavities the desired deformation would be permanent. It is not known whether or not the collapse of pipes and cavities would be absolute with one detonation. Continued leakage, though reduced, is conceivable.

After assessing the effects of the first detonation the technique could be repeated to further constrict residual flow. However, once the released flow becomes negligible other non-explosive encasement techniques could be employed to decisively seal the well. Modelling must proceed immediately to better define shock wave requirements, and predict effects in this regard.

BBC: Also, how confident are you that this would work - is there a way you can quantify that?

FG: The technique must be modeled in order to get a ballpark estimate. Several variables can be relied upon up front.

The explosive force and dimensions of the MOAB, the explosive force of the cocktail of liquid oxygen, aluminum powder, and other potential accelerants added to augment the MOAB, the dimensions of the pressure vessel, the ambient water pressure, and the exact construction of the well head and all equipment in direct contact with the flow.

Other quantities that would need to be known for the model include the composition and structure of the seafloor immediately surrounding the well head out to the distance at which the radially expanding shock wave loses its peak pressure potency.

Also, the distance between the seafloor and the oil reserves below it would need to be considered to avoid unintended consequences., Finally, the effect of the oil plume, having different acoustic properties than the water, would have to be understood as this will affect shock wave propagation.

It is noteworthy that, as reported on CNN on 10 June, the Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL) has modelled interactions of interest using different devices in the past and this data can be used to guide to new models. In summary, quantification of the workability of the idea depends on that modeling.

BBC: Are there any other potential outcomes from using the MOAB which could make the problem worse? How likely are they compared to the model you have proposed?

FG: The composition of the seafloor and the distance of oil reserves below that floor are key considerations. Without caution one could fracture natural containment structures if the oil is a shallow depth below the seafloor.

Also, if any man made structures in contact with oil flow are brittle, such as concrete, ceramics, etc. a lack of caution could crack those structures undesirably.

Finally, modeling will have to determine whether it is advantageous or disadvantageous to have the relatively small blast bubble of the enhanced MOAB intersect the targeted equipment. It is a safe prediction that metal plumbing will collapse under implosive forces of the passing shock wave.

However, it is less predictable what shearing, heat, and blast effects would have on that equipment if it is encompassed by the blast. It could improve the outcome, or it could be counter-productive. Again, quantification of unintended consequences also depends on modelling.

BBC: Just lastly - how quickly could a MOAB system be deployed to the leak?

FG: Educated guesswork leads me to believe that given the will this could be done within one to two weeks.

This is based entirely on the following assumptions, that 1) MOABs exist, 2) a pressure vessel can be found, converted, and/or constructed easily.

3) The easy accessibility of several tons of liquid oxygen canisters and several tons of sealed canisters of powdered aluminum (or magnesium), 4) the rapid availability of known MOAB data from the Air Force Research Lab and the contractor of government armaments manufacturer.

And 5) the willing assistance of the Department of Energy to provide past lab data on similar tests as well as in conducting the modeling of the present idea.

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