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Aquaballoon: Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Solution

Use robust balloons to carry the oil up from the seabed; for normal use as well as emergencies.
  (+18, -1)(+18, -1)
(+18, -1)
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The current crisis <link> is pumping 5,000 [edit: 20,000 [edit: 40,000 [edit: 100,000]]] barrels into the ocean each day. That's quite a bit, but as far as flowrate is concerned it's only 10 gallons a second: through a 6" pipe the velocity is about 7.5 ft/sec [edit:15 f/s, come on guys make up your mind]

If we manufacture open-ended balloons along the lines of hot-air balloons but strong enough to contain the upwards pressure of the oil-inside versus the water-outside, and robust enough to weather the ascent, we can put them on top of the wellhead, one by one, letting them float up to the surface of the water after they're full. Any gas that forms during the ascent due to the dropping ambient pressure can either be retained by making the balloon big enough to contain it, or possibly vented out the top.

Ice and clathrates aren't problems. There's nothing for ice to clog and, since the ascent only takes minutes and there's no friction with the pipe, clathrates don't have time to warm up and start outgassing.

The only possible problems I can see with this concerns effervescing gases during the short ascent (think: what happens when you pull the beer out of the freezer and open it?). Also, heavier-than-water fractions will tend to sink out the hole in the bottom of the balloon. Still a helluva lot more useful then what they're doing.

FlyingToaster, May 10 2010

2010 Gulf of Mexico Spill http://www.reuters....10?type=marketsNews
[FlyingToaster, May 10 2010]

General thrust equation http://www.grc.nasa...rplane/thrsteq.html
M dot is where you start, not where you finish [lurch, May 10 2010]

What can you do with 150 gal/minute? http://www.google.c...ch?q=150+gpm+nozzle
take a look... [lurch, May 10 2010]

Get That Water Above the Pollution Line it Can't Be That Difficult! Get_20That_20Water_...20That_20Difficult!
Sort of the opposite of this idea. [phoenix, May 11 2010]

make a very large diameter canvas pipe and let the oil float up Curtain-Wall_20Riser
Except for the problems associated witha 4 mile long canvas pipe in a current I like this one better. [FlyingToaster, Jun 19 2010, last modified Jun 19 2011]


       whoops, itchy finger... you were saying [zt] ? I'm tired, I might rewrite it so it actually makes sense later today.
FlyingToaster, May 10 2010

       No worries - I'm just trying to get a feel for the "fountainyness" of the oil coming out of the bore-hole because I've a feeling that's where we may find some scope for development.   

       Let's compare the space-shuttle's thrust with that of the oil coming out of that bore-hole. That might give us some idea of how easy it is to capture the oil in a balloon.
Here's some maths (the starting figures are from the internet, so assume some degree of error)
The shuttle holds 143,000 gallons of LOX and 383,000 gallons of Hydrogen
It burns all of this fuel in 8.4 minutes, the exhaust gasses providing enough lift to put the shuttle into orbit
The oil is coming out of the hole at the bottom of the sea at 5000 barrels/day
There are 42 gallons in a barrel, and 4.54L in a gallon.
The thrust (and by extention, the "fountainyness") provided by a thing is governed by the amount of mass that is moved and the time it takes to move it.
I'm making the (non-mathematical) assumption that it might be difficult to encapsulate the exhaust gasses from the space-shuttle in a balloon. If we then compare the exhaust-fountain of the oil, we can determine how tricky it will be to encapsulate the exhaust from the oil-hole, as a ratio of how hard it would be, compared to capturing the space-shuttle's thrust in a bag.
Using the relative densities of hydrogen, oxygen and oil of 0.0898 g/L, 1.308 g/L and 973 g/L
So 143,000 of Oxygen, in 8.4 minutes, at 1.308 g/L gives a thrust of 6064 kg/h. Add the hydrogen for another 1,116 kg/h and you have a total thrust of 7180 kg/h. Now take the 5000 barrels of oil, in 24 hours, at 973 g/L and you have a thrust of 38,652 kg/h. So the oil is coming out of the ground with a force of approximately 5 space-shuttles.

       [edit] Forgot to convert to Litres in my first calculation [2nd edit] forgot to put my new figures in my annotation.   

       To your temperature question, the oil is at geothermal depths, so it's pretty hot (+100C) - the fact that when it comes out, it cools the salt-water to less than 0C gives you some idea of the incredible pressure it's been under.
zen_tom, May 10 2010

       z_t, you messed up the math pretty badly there.
lurch, May 10 2010

       [lurch] that's not a complete surprise - hopefully though, it's conveyed the general thrust of my argument (that it's going to be tricky) even if the numbers don't actually support that argument. I did subsequently do the gallons to litres conversion (which originally gave a value of 274 space-shuttles) so I thought the latest version of the numbers (as above) were reasonable - which bit did I mess up? [Aha - yes, I forgot to update my post with all the new numbers - is that any better?]   

       On a second errata note, I'm not sure the oil really does freeze the water or not - apparently the "snow" isn't really snow, but a sort of oily foam - I have no idea what temperature it might be at.
zen_tom, May 10 2010

       First, you used the density figures for gaseous oxygen and hydrogen instead of LOX and LH2 - liquids, density figures should be 1141 g/L and 71 g/L, respectively. (If you're going to talk about mass flow rates, look up the *mass* of propellants in the tank - that would have been a quick check on how far off your "7180 kg/h" rate was.) Next, there's a *lot* more involved in a thrust calculation than how much mass is used - if not, there'd be no point in lighting the stuff on fire.   

       A reasonable comparison is going to be a lot more in the range of "fire hose" than "space shuttle".
lurch, May 10 2010

       OK, I stand corrected - but ignoring the setting it on fire thing - we're still only down to 0.1 space-shuttle - which is less than I initially expected, but quite a bit more than 1 fire-hose.
zen_tom, May 10 2010

       The space shuttle engines are extremely optimized for getting the maximum thrust out of the available mass flow. That alone makes it a very bad comparison.   

       OK, let's try this:
5000 barrels per day
42 gal / barrel
5000*42 = 210,000 gallons / day

210,000/24 = 8750 gal / hr
8750 / 60 = 145.8 gal / min

       150 gal/minute is not only in "fire hose range", it's not really all that impressive a fire hose. It appears you can run a 150 gpm fog nozzle on a 1.75 inch hose at 150 psi if your hose is fairly short.   

       According to Elkhart Brass, a 7/8 inch smoothbore nozzle at 150 gpm will give 51 lbs reaction force, which doesn't exceed the safety limit (68 lbs) for use by a single fireman. Now if you imagine that same flow out of an 8 or 10 inch pipe, it's more of a "gurgle" flow.
lurch, May 10 2010

       Bah, you can prove anything with facts!   

       A fire-hose it is then. Mutter mutter [+] etc.
zen_tom, May 10 2010

       More impressive to me is the bargain basement possibilities of launching a manned space craft into orbit using only (145.8gallons/minute *8.4min)=1224.72 gallons of rocket fuel.
pocmloc, May 10 2010

       and may I tactfully point out that there is no mile's worth of friction and possible pumping losses, just drag a balloon down to the leak, fill'er down <smirk>, and let it float to the surface, where the petroleums are harvested, and returned for more.   

       Ice, even if present, isn't a problem, just bring it up with the rest of the stuff.   

       Any liquid HC disrespectful enough to turn into a free gaseous state during transit can either be let loose to pollute the atmosphere (though you really don't want to park a boat directly on top of that) probably killing off some seagulls, or be included in the calculations for how much to fill the balloon with the gunk coming out of the hole...   

       (It's in my own best half-interests to postulate that (unhindered by friction) the clathrates might operate in the same manner as a LNG tank: some boiloff happens, but the act of boiling off cools the remainder.)   

       but [zt] yeah, the real problem *might* be with a "foam head" consisting of itty-bitty x-ane bubbles. But methane clathrates are pretty happy as a solid up 'til 0C, and the whole mess is just being transported "as is" from the depths.   

       ah yes here we are: "methane calthrates are typically 0.9g/cm^3"{Wikipedia} § x1
FlyingToaster, May 10 2010


       I think this is a bloody good idea. You could (as an emergency measure) just use a biggly big sheet of a suitable material, with weights around the corners. As it filled, it would naturally rise up into a sort of dome, and then ascend. And venting the gas would be pretty easy, I'd guess.   

       Brilliant! Have an oil-free croissant from me.
MaxwellBuchanan, May 10 2010

       My concern is the amount of particulate and suspended solids "chaff" in the mix (sand and mud), since for the purposes of an immediate solution we need the net specific gravity of everything coming out of the hole to be less than that of seawater. The particulates could also be bonded with clathrates making them heavier-than-water (messy if they settle out and drop out of the balloon though not an immediate concern), and worse, bonded with liquid petroleum: if that settles out then the exercise could be pointless.
FlyingToaster, May 10 2010

       But presumably the stuff *is* lighter than seawater, or it wouldn't be a problem, shirley?
MaxwellBuchanan, May 10 2010

       The liquid petroleum, free gas and clathrates, with or without ice particles is all lighter-than-water, but what about coal and inert(non-petroleum) sand or mud ? If those particles don't settle/drop out then they're a lift hindrance, and if they do settle/drop out and take liquid petroleum with them (ie: greasy mud) then the exercise is somewhat compromised (not too worried about free or frozen gases escaping though it would be nice to avoid that too).   

       I suppose as long as the net weight is light enough, we could close the hole in the bottom of the bag for the short trip up top.   

       random calculation: a 6" interior diameter pipe would be pushing the stuff along at a healthy velocity of 20.5 inches per second. [edit: that's for 5,000 barrels a day, for 40,000 it's 15 fett per second]
FlyingToaster, May 10 2010

       ran the maths and we could run a half-full 17 foot diameter balloon up every hour. Since it has literally tonnes of buoyancy, we can count on it quickly reaching terminal velocity, making the transit time a matter of 2-3 minutes. (Figure is based on a vague note on the 'net somewhere that terminal velocity in water is 30mph'ish.)   

       Clathrates won't have time to warm up but dissolved gases, if there are any?, will come out and froth making it difficult to solely vent gases during transit.   

       So either an open weather-balloon type of thing with plenty of expansion room, or a sealable Kevlar soccer-ball. It'd be nice to know the exact composition of the petroleum to enable further rumination. Heck, a large bag could work: depends how much gases are going to come out (and as previously stated, relying on the net specific gravity of the well effluent to be less than that of seawater).   

       //cone solution used right now// what's that then ?   

       Seems to me their problem is they require a sealed line straight from the bottom of the shaft up through the ocean floor and up to the surface. And they'll run into problems with that with all the clogging foam/ice/whatever. Using balloons gets around that.
FlyingToaster, May 11 2010

       I bet you could put a snorkel-valve like arrangement on top to release volatiles.   

       I bet you'd have to.
lurch, May 11 2010

       //snorkel// or something like that: a valve of some sort. But if it's all "head", we're going to have problems blowing off only gases.
FlyingToaster, May 11 2010

       // if it's all "head", we're going to have problems blowing off only gases.// fnar fnar!
MaxwellBuchanan, May 11 2010

       Well, the image of this operation is a very halfbaked thing, all these balloons floating around the ocean at different heights like a fine-tuned galilean thermometer. If I remember correctly, the temperature of the water changes the bouyancy of the bulbs in such a device. Will this effect be realized in your balloons? Hard to say.   

       I think the balloons have a good chance of breaking open, and there are too many moving parts to assemble/disassemble... Who's going to attach the balloons? A robotic submarine or somesuch? How long does this go on before a new solution is needed?   

       I like this idea, so +. However, it's a very cumbersome approach compared to the dumb trash BP is throwing around (Let's plug it up with a tophat!).
daseva, May 11 2010

       //have problems blowing off only gases// - OK, you have a large bag, with some crude oil, and some foam, and some gas. There will be a gradient toward lower density in the top of the balloon. How can a valve tell where to cut the gradient? Simple: the float controlling the shutoff valve is more dense than anything you want to vent, and less dense than whatever you want to keep. You get to engineer your float to whatever density you desire. (I don't think it's going to be an issue if there is some vented frothy stuff.)   

       (re: "terminal velocity" - I'm having this interesting image of the balloon venting lots of gas, in the form of tiny bubbles (which rise slower), causing one of those "methane foam" hazards we've heard about in the Bermuda Triangle and whatnot - but in this case, it would be *above* the balloon. The balloon would be unable to rise into the bubble stream, because on a macro scale the density of that water column is lowered. So, the apparatus might be able to use vented gas to "put the brakes" on its own ascent.)
lurch, May 11 2010

       //ah yes here we are: "methane calthrates are typically 0.9g/cm^3"{Wikipedia} //
Spell checking has gone to pot over at Wikipedia.
AbsintheWithoutLeave, May 11 2010

       //Spell checking...// brain's a rental.
FlyingToaster, May 12 2010

       Drilling in a deep trench   

       Eyeing high returns with bad intent.   

       Got your money down the hose   

       Greasy techniques sung in shabby prose   

       Dying in the cold sun   

       Watching as coral's dance is done.   

       Feeling like we're dead ducks. Evaporation in an oil slick's done...   

       Aquabaloon- oh, aquabaloon! (+)
Zimmy, May 12 2010

       / the fact that when it comes out, it cools the salt-water to less than 0C gives you some idea of the incredible pressure it's been under./   

       this is from zen-toms anno above. It surprises me. Can this be true? I thought that temperature changes with pressure was related to volume changes of pressurized gas. I would not think that compressed liquid petroleum would change it volume that much. Unless there are volatiles that immediately outgas on relief of pressure, which would explain it.   

       I like the biggly big sheet of plastic with central gas relief valve. Nonfloaty stuff falls out the bottom. Gassy stuff comes out the top. Greasy floaty stuff is trapped.
bungston, May 12 2010

       //biggly big sheet of plastic with central gas relief valve. Nonfloaty stuff falls out the bottom. Gassy stuff comes out the top. Greasy floaty stuff is trapped.//   

       This should be the post description.
daseva, May 12 2010

       <churn for environmentally conscious bunnage>   

       I actually think it's a good viable idea, but BP's procedures for sending in suggestions or volunteering time is very obviously a black hole and I don't know any BP employees.   

       "Estimates" up to 20,000 barrels a day now. (I bet they'd be able to tell you to the millilitre if they were making money on it)   

       (Post edited with new figures and trimmed back quite a bit for easier reading: "Now with less rambling and mumbling!!!")
FlyingToaster, May 30 2010

       40,000 barrels a day is the latest estimate.   

       I think for this to work it would need an primary collector/separator to remove entrained water and provide a framework to fill and seal balloons. A big semirigid cone with a filler mechanism atop.
afinehowdoyoudo, Jun 12 2010

       just something like a hot-air balloon (not framed like a dirigible not elastic like a toy balloon), though if I wasn't lazy I'd run some calculations (and if I actually knew which calculations) concerning the upwards pressure on the envelope and the material strengths of whatever it's made out of (kevlar sounds good)... might turn out to need a collapsible frame of some kind. But why seal it (on the bottom) ?   

       I don't see water or lack thereof as a problem: you bring the balloon down deflated and the gusher fills it... if any water gets in so what ? You don't want to fill it all the way up (down) anyways, to allow for effervescing on the way up. It might start out looking like those pics you see of high-atmosphere weather balloons, with the long streaming canopy.
FlyingToaster, Jun 12 2010

       Ends up looking like an ocean full of shredded rubber and oil. In my opinion, the materials science for this kind of thing is beyond us. [-]
daseva, Jun 12 2010

       Hullaballoons to the rescue!
RayfordSteele, Jun 13 2010

       hate to burst the bubble but the LNG that is mixed in with the oil represents a significantly greater volume (or pressure) at the surface than it does at the well head. can your balloon accommodate an ---[unknown but scratch paper math puts it at large ]--- increase in volume? What relative percentage volumes are you working with at the well head? What about at the surface? I would look into it before I finalized any plans.
WcW, Jun 13 2010

       [WcW] I did sorta mention that quite a bit. But since I don't know what the composition of the petroleum coming out of the seabed is, no clue. For the (simpler) purpose of environmental damage mitigation, free gases could be vented.   

       The problem, the way I see it, isn't with the gas itself it's the actual act of effervescing: what effect does it have on the matrix it's effervescing into? When you pull a frozen beer or soda out of the freezer and open it, the CO2 isn't politely waiting at the top of the can to be released, it's part of the slush, so (maybe) the bulk of the effervesced gases will act in the same way and it can't be vented without releasing the strata it's frozen into.   

       //Hullaballoon// would also work underwater but is more than a little totally unrelated. And bringing the stuff to the surface using a magical mile-long mechanism of balloons fixed to a pulley&line would lose the advantage of a fast, internally frictionless(compared to a pipe) ascent.   

       [daseva]//shredded rubber// yeah that's a problem in many parts of the world, or a total lack of a rubber in the first place. But I don't get how you figure a rubber tree is going to have grown under the ocean floor in the first place or that it would constitute some large percentage of the petroleum.   

       "40,000 barrels a day" now.
FlyingToaster, Jun 13 2010

       ? I meant your shit would break.
daseva, Jun 13 2010

       //I mean your shit would break// me ? you're the one saying it's made out of rubber. To quote the post   

       "...along the lines of hot-air balloons but strong enough to contain the upwards pressure of the oil-inside versus the water-outside, and robust enough to weather the ascent..."   

       Something along the lines of reinforced Kevlar. Besides having to contain liquid, gaseous and solid(clathrates and ice) petroleum, it has to withstand the force of the oil trying to rise through the water... which is what I meant by "pressure"... perhaps "weight" is a better word or "force".   

       Whatever, petroleum is about 90'ish % the mass of water and that works out to about 100kg/m3.
FlyingToaster, Jun 13 2010

       Here's another thing that's likely to create an interesting effect: fractionation.   

       Normally, you think of fractional distillation of petroleum starting from crude oil at atmospheric temperature and pressure, then taking temperature up from there to boil off each individual product.   

       Here, we're starting with wellhead crude, possibly not much above freezing (the water is pretty cold, and I've not heard anything about any warmth available from the oil) and under gobs of pressure. As the oil comes toward the surface, the different volatiles will reach their boiling points as the pressure drops.   

       Methane - that'll be fizzing out as it comes out of the well. It's above its critical point already.   

       C2H4 (ethene, or ethylene) should vaporize at a depth of about 1500 feet. Ethane at about 1000 feet down (these figures are very rough, being very temperature dependant), propane at about 150 feet, and butane at around 45.   

       Of course, at each of those points, the density of the crude will go up slightly as the volatiles come out.   

       Don't know what effect that will have on the idea, but it's something that would be really cool to watch.
lurch, Jun 14 2010

       //fractional distillation// don't really care about gases that aren't frothing: they can be either kept or vented during the ascent. Remember that though viable for a means of regularly transporting crude from the seafloor to the surface, the original purpose is to simply keep the oil out of the water.   

       But unlike transportation via pipe, we *want* the gases to form clathrates, which take up less room and are still lighter than water.
FlyingToaster, Jun 18 2010

       // really don't care // well, ex-kyoooze me!   

       // we *want* the gases to form clathrates // go ahead and want. It'll happen with the methane, but not with the other gases. You can figure out why, if you'd like to.
lurch, Jun 18 2010

       // // really don't care // well, ex-kyoooze me! //
Read the sentence your misquote came from. If the gas effervesces out cleanly, yay, it can be vented (or kept depending on how big your balloon is)... actually you were the one who mentioned that over a month ago in an anno (May 11)

       // // we *want* the gases to form clathrates // go ahead and want. It'll happen with the methane, but not with the other gases. You can figure out why, if you'd like to. //
I'm sure I could if the process were simple enough to understand . Unlike in a pipey solution, clathrate-formation is a *bonus* because it keeps gases locked up.
FlyingToaster, Jun 18 2010

       // if the process were simple enough // it's so simple, I'd call it a trick question.
lurch, Jun 18 2010

       //trick question// like "what is the composition of that particular well ?" which leads to...   

       Is there enough of gaseous <x> to be bothered ?, and...   

       "should we introduce seawater to *cause* clathrate formation ? (to mitigate free gas production)"
FlyingToaster, Jun 18 2010

       Hi, [FlyingToaster]. I want to give this idea another shot.   

       I like the Galilean aspect, firstly. Also, I like the fact that you're investing deeply in this post, even though BP has an entire service line dedicated to clean-up suggestions, and if you were really serious about it then shirley you would be over there. No offense, however. I tried the BP lines for my own idea. They're despicable.   

       As for the rubber comment, I was projecting. I thought hot air balloons were made of rubber. Boy was I wrong!   

       The simple fact is that balloons have a hard enough time traversing the pressure differentials of an airy atmosphere. They will definitely run into problems traversing this new domain. I commend your dedication and inventiveness. In the spirit of the 'bakery, this idea is legit. Here's a bun once a fish.   

       //something along the lines of reinforced kevlar// I want to form a new MFD: material science; Somewhere in between WIBNI and recipe. It's just too hard to say what material will be optimal for this. We can't say. We shouldn't waste our time speculating. Besides, custard is probably the only suitable medium for plugging the well.
daseva, Jun 19 2010

       //I like the Galilean aspect//
I'd happily take credit for that if I knew what it was :D

       //you're investing deeply in this post, even though BP has an entire service line dedicated to clean-up suggestions//
I went there; it's a third-party site that looks like a black hole: you get to download a form, readable only by the very latest Adobe Acrobat software, which, after you fill it in, automagically mails it out. I'd have to unhack half my system to get that to work, presuming it does in the first place. I'm betting that they consider their "cleanup money" better spent on lawyers and marketers.

       //The rubber comment, I was projecting. I thought hot air balloons were made of rubber. Boy was I wrong!// silk, which I imagine you'd need quite a thickness of if you tried that.   

       // I want to form a new MFD: material science// well, you won't get it here: the upwards force on the envelope both at rest and once it hits terminal velocity is about 100kg for every cubic metre of crude. I don't think a (say) 10 metre diameter balloon made of (say) Kevlar would have any problems with that.   

       The "balloon" could even be a metal sphere, but a reinforced cloth envelope could be designed and manufcatured (by somebody who knew what they're doing) in a matter of days, not the weeks that a metal bulb would require. Also I had pictured moving and positioning the deflated balloon over the wellhead as something that could be done with the ROV's already on the scene; a much simpler task than anything requiring moving a large sphere of solid metal around.
FlyingToaster, Jun 19 2010

       Quoting self:
//z_t, you messed up the math pretty badly there.//

       Let's change that to:
BP, you messed up the math pretty badly there.
lurch, Jun 21 2010

       they've changed their mind so many times I'm not sure of my own math now... and at this point (100,000 barrels/day) I think the stuff's coming out at well over 50kph... not peanuts any more.
FlyingToaster, Jun 21 2010

       //Mr Diesel's decaying corpse// Well, until we have an H2 infrastructure *and* solar & nuke-powered water-cracking installations, I don't see the petroleum industry going anywhere.   

       And since HCCI is still in the lab, I'll still hold out for a Methane(/Diesel) & (regen)Electric Hybrid system for vehicles for right now, and hopes for non-GHG-producing Methane cracking for fuel-cells in the mid-future.
FlyingToaster, Jun 21 2010


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