Can Offering Prizes for Innovative Solutions Save the Gulf?

By Chris Mooney | May 13, 2010 8:08 am

This is a guest post by Darlene Cavalier, a writer and senior adviser at Discover Magazine. Darlene holds a Masters degree from the University of Pennsylvania, and is a former Philadelphia 76ers cheerleader. She founded ScienceCheerleader.com and cofounded ScienceForCitizens.net to make it possible for lay people to contribute to science.

Prizes: This old idea is making a sweeping comeback and it is changing the way government, industry and foundations help revolutionize future discovery. It’s high time we offer prizes to motivate and galvanize the public to come up with creative, real-time solutions to major disasters, such as the BP oil spill.

Approximately one-and-a-half weeks ago, I received an email from Andrew Revkin (who writes the DotEarth blog at The New York Times) in which he challenged researchers and others to think creatively about substantive approaches to stanching the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“There’s a lot of talk about sweeping Grand Engineering Challenges this year. But one is unfolding in real-time in the Gulf. Waiting months for a relief well seems pretty in the box,” he wrote in the email (reprinted with Revkin’s permission), and reiterated in this blog post.

While it’s true that BP is accepting public suggestions about ideas to mitigate the oil spill, the process needs some tweaking. From the Deepwater Horizon Response website: “Once a formal suggestion has been filed, BP technical personnel will carefully evaluate each and every one for technical feasibility and proof of application. If the engineering group finds the suggestion feasible, the person submitting the suggestion will be contacted if and when their support is needed.”

BP technical personnel will evaluate the suggestions? Seems a little too cozy to me.

For the same reasons President Obama wants to divide the Minerals Management Service into two agencies–one charged with inspecting oil rigs, investigating oil companies and enforcing safety regulations, and another to oversee leases for drilling and collection of billions of dollars in royalties–perhaps we should consider a third-party administrator to solicit and evaluate proposed solutions from the public.

I suspect the White House would agree. Earlier this week, Beth Noveck, U.S. Deputy Chief Technology Officer and Director of the White House Open Government Initiative, summarized on the White House blog the highlights of a  recent Prize Summit organized by the Office of Science and Technology Policy and some of the major players in the world of big prizes. “Leaders from over thirty Federal agencies have come to learn about how to incorporate prizes and incentive-backed challenges into their work of addressing complex policy problems,” Noveck reported.  The summit helped agencies learn more about the benefits of prizes while setting forth guidelines, like this one from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB): “A prize should not be an end in itself, but one means within a broader strategy for spurring private innovation and change.”

Hold the phone. What if one IS looking for an end in itself, such as an immediate solution to the oil spill?

I contacted InnoCentive‘s CEO, Dwayne Spradlin. InnoCentive works with companies and organizations struggling to find (largely technical) solutions. If in-house researchers and engineers can’t solve a problem, InnoCentive poses the challenge to its 250,000 independent solvers from all walks of life. Not surprisingly, Dwayne informed me that he’d already put into action an Emergency Response 2.0 Challenge to help find a solution to mitigate the impact of the oil spill. Unlike most of InnoCentive’s other challenges, this one does not carry a cash prize.

“Our connected planet needs to take a fresh approach to disaster response,” remarked Spradlin in a recent media release. “All crisis situations are time-sensitive and we have the ability to quickly tap into our global Solver network to start looking for solutions immediately. It only takes one amazing idea to slow the Gulf oil leak or minimize its impact.”

Now thru May 30th, anyone with a creative solution to this crisis can enter the Emergency Response 2.0 Challenge.

I, for one, support Spradlin’s approach. Now it’s time to link Spradlin up with the White House and BP. Stay tuned.

But if you’re not entirely persuaded that prizes—or, more to my point, opening doors to public participation–may hold the key to finding unique solutions to grand challenges, pull up a chair so I can bend your ear some more…Be forewarned, I am prize-obsessed. I was the executive director of the Discover Magazine Technology Awards and, more recently, wrote this piece about prizes which was featured in Discover’s Top 100 Science Stories of 2009.

Prizes have been around for three centuries, dating back to 1714  when the British Parliament established the Longitude Prize in an effort to turn to the public to end reoccurring shipwrecks from inaccurate measurements at sea. Not surprising to modern era supporters of open collaboration and incentivized competitions, the solution came from an unexpected source–a clockmaker who developed the marine chronometer.

Charles Lindbergh’s famous transatlantic endeavor was a result of his participation in the Orteig Prize for the first nonstop flight between New York and Paris–an accomplishment, notes X PRIZE Foundation CEO Peter Diamandis, that woke up Americans to what was possible and spawned a $300 billion aviation industry.

The $10 million Ansari X PRIZE to launch a privately funded reusable space craft was modeled after the Orteig Prize. The X PRIZE Foundation and its partners have helped spur a renaissance in prize giving with a plan to award $100 million over the next five years through ten new prizes, including the $10M Archon X PRIZE for Genomics to drive rapid human genome sequencing. “We know that performance-based investments, where sponsors only pay for results, and where competitors often spend 10-40 times the amount of the prize purse, are highly efficient, effective, low-risk mechanisms to solve problems,” says Diamandis.

A report by McKinsey & Company, commissioned by the John Templeton Foundation, tracks 219 current prizes with awards value greater than $100,000. The report  finds that before 1991, 97% of big-prize purses recognized prior achievements (Nobel Prizes, for example), but since then, 78% of new prize money has been given as inducement to prize winners that achieve a specific, future goal. What’s more, the authors estimate the total prize sector to be worth as much as $1 to 2 billion (currently, corporations fund 30% of major prizes).

Prizes can stimulate unconventional collaborations and decentralize the pool of potential solvers, casting a wider net to seek solutions from unexpected sources.

“Innovations happen at the intersection of disciplines,” Karim R. Lakhani, assistant professor in the Technology and Operations Management unit at Harvard Business School, once told me. He and his coauthors studied the effect of  “broadcasting” or sharing problems with people whose expertise is at the periphery of a problem’s particular field. It turns out, those outsiders “were most likely to find the answers and do so quickly.” The study and its findings are described in “The Value of Openness in Scientific Problem Solving,” coauthored with Lars Bo Jeppesen, Peter A. Lohse, and Jill A. Panetta.

Do prizes spur innovation? A 2009 study by Harvard and the Norwegian Business School  compared 2000 awards given in the late 18th century-early 19th century with inventions registered with the British Patent Office. Not only were winners more likely to receive and renew patents but the participants applied for more than 13,000 patents for their inventions.

Inducement prizes can be “transformational elements to support innovation,” wrote Tom Kalil in a 2006 Brookings Institution report, three years before President Obama appointed him Deputy Director of the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy. In the report, Kalil called for the institutionalization of prizes as policy. He suggested that NASA, for example, eventually allocate 2-3% of its annual budget to such prizes.  (Senator McCain promised during his presidential campaign a $300 million prize for the development of a battery for plug-in hybrids or electric cars.) It’s no coincidence that the National Science Foundation, NASA, the Department of Energy, and the 27 other federal agencies Noveck references in her OSTP blog post, endorse the use of public funds to support inducement prizes, hearkening back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

Bottom line: Expect to see LOTS of big prizes ahead. For now, let’s hope Spradlin’s Emergency Response 2.0 project gets the attention it deserves from BP, the White House, and the scientific community–because, as Revkin said, we need immediate solutions to real-time disasters.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment

Comments (30)

  1. Nullius in Verba

    At the moment, BP are the main people that a solution would be worth lots of money to, since they’ll be paying for the clean-up. In fact, I’d venture to suggest that they’re currently desperate for anything fast and feasible, and very likely would be happy to pay.

    The problem, usually, is that they’ve already been thinking about this problem for decades, and most of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked. There’s a chance that an off-the-wall idea from a member of the public could be the solution, but it’s a faint one. Most likely, you would need to know a lot about deep sea engineering and oil exploration to be able to contribute intelligently, and they’ve already got all of those people on the job. They’re only offering the open competition as PR to mitigate public frustration that “they’re not doing it right” from armchair engineers with their own ideas.

    One thing they probably could do is invite those Dutch oil-skimmers to take part. They’re ready, willing, able, and standing by. They use huge booms to suck up the water, separate out the oil, and return the cleaned-up water to the sea.

    Why aren’t they helping already? Because the EPA told them to go away.

    As the water returned to the sea does have some oil residue in it, the method is banned by the EPA’s environmental regulations. Ho. Ho. Those zany environmentalists – whatever will they think up next? Here’s an off-the-wall suggestion from a member of the general public – how about we tell the EPA bureaucrats to go dunk themselves and give the Dutch a call? How crazy is that?

    http://www.rnw.nl/english/article/dutch-oil-spill-response-team-standby-us-oil-disaster

  2. I’d guess that internal prize systems within corporations are the best test of the ability of prizes to drive innovation. I’ll guess further that prizes are helpful, but not the primary drivers of innovation. Suggestions that prizes can substitute for regulations and grant-driven research would be a mistake (not trying to say this is what the post author is saying).

  3. Guy

    I submitted a solution, but I’m sure someone else already thought of it.

  4. Innovation in any endeavor can be driven using either the “push” or “pull” paradigm. The most common “push” is exemplified by the current funding mechanism in science, grants. Whether from the National Science Foundation (NSF), National Institutes of Health (NIH) or any of a myriad of governmental funding agencies, driving research via this method of “pushing the cart up the hill” is slow, arduous and full of bureaucracy! It’s a time honored tradition in the academic world for sure though! The “pull” mechanism of prizes, however, is less common and appears to be useful as an incentive for actual innovation- as evidenced with its presented historical development! One really novel prize not mentioned above is the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) “One Million Dollar Paranormal Challenge” to weed out pseudoscientific claims! (See http://www.randi.org for details) Psychologically, people respond to spontaneous incentives like “prizes” and “awards” more so than constant incentives like allowances for doing chores- believe me, I am fighting that battle on the home-front with my kids!

    Whatever mechanism works- my bet is on the “pull” method with prizes and awards- it’s clear some lubricating of the wheels of the proverbial cart is needed and the Spradlin’s Emergency Response 2.0 project may very well be what’s needed to get this Gulf oil problem handled more expediently!

  5. I’m torn. In a very real sense we already have a “prize” system at work – intellectual property law. We also have a “prize” system that focuses somewhat on accountability – our courts. Obviously both are imperfect.

    I’m a huge believer in organic entrepreneurship, and I don’t think innovation is something you can shoehorn into a problem. Still, if incentives of any kind drive good brains to focus on pressing problems, not simply frivolous consumer products (I’m looking at YOU, snuggie) I can’t complain.

  6. Often, the primary motivator isn’t the prize; it’s the opportunity to make a difference. The very act of broadcasting the challenge to talent outside of the usual scope of expertise, can yield faster, better solutions. It’s not so much the prize, per se, as it is the invitation to participate.

  7. TTT

    “No”.

    And the next time you wonder why environmentalists scoff at geoengineering…. actually I hope you never have to wonder about that again. This was an oil company building an oil well with just ONE NOVEL FACTOR–water depth–and they couldn’t even get that right.

  8. Dark tent

    It’s absurd to be talking about “prizes” when the US already has some of the best (smartest, most innovative) publicly funded scientists and engineers in the world — to say nothing of private scientists and engineers (from around the world) who would most likely actually VOLUNTEER their expertise if they were only asked.

    The real question is, why were these people not brought in on DAY ONE to assess the scope of the problem (including actually measuring the oil flow from the pipes!) and propose and DIRECT engineering solutions?

    The way this thing has been “handled” by Obama up to this point (essentially leaving it up to BP) amounts to GROSS incompetence.

  9. Geez … I dunno … here’s a simple solution.

    Ban deepwater oil drilling.

    Just like single hulled oil tankers were banned, and for the same reason.

    There’s no Plan B.

  10. The Innovative Prize “Solution” contains an assumption that BP or other oil companies are not comfortable writing off environmental devastation as overhead and the cost of doing business.

    Such an assumption is profoundly ignorant of the facts. The whole reason this gusher is destroying the Gulf is because BP has actively refused to seek out and implement effective preventive solutions and lobbied Congress to make sure fail-safe measures are not legally imposed as part of a drilling permit.

    Assuming BP et al. “wants” to do the right thing is childish and delusional.

  11. Dark tent

    “Obama slams oil companies over spill response
    President describes finger-pointing at hearing as a ‘ridiculous spectacle’” — MSNBC
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/37148363/ns/gulf_oil_spill/

    What is REALLY ridiculous is that the President of the United States (the most powerful person on the planet) apparently sees his role in this as little more than a cheerleader for BP who can only watch from the sidelines while BP continues to f… things up.

    It’s absurd.

    And Obama appears to be either clueless or disingenuous about the subject o f measuring the actual oil flow rate. Obama says “Because no one can get down there in person, there is a level of uncertainty”.

    Scientists and engineers don’t need to “get down there in person” to get a good estimate of the flow rate (and for Obama to claim that they do is simply nonsense). All they need is the proper instrumentation in place — and that can be delivered robotically, just as BP has done with the “dome”, fo r example.

    Actually, engineers and scientists (eg, at Purdue and Columbia) have already come up with estimates from the existing BP videos that show that the probable flow exceeds the “official” coast guard estimate of 5000 barrels per day by an order of magnitude or better.

    http://www.physorg.com/news193058341.html

    Of course there is “uncertainty” associate with such estimates (there always is) but if one is trying to establish the rough magnitude, even the videos are sufficient.

    And, despite what Obama implies, it IS important (critical, in fact) to know the magnitude of the problem one is dealing with, not least of all because it dictates the urgency with which one must deal with it. (Of course, Obama has already let 3 precious weeks go by when he could have had our best scientists and engineers working on solving this problem)

  12. Darlene, as usual, you are right on the mark.
    I’d like to add a few thoughts:
    ***
    Firstly, on why prize-based innovation is vital and what stands in the way …
    Broadly, prizes have an extraordinary potential to attract and focus the attention of large numbers of people on very important problems. That is seldom challenged. What gets in the way is human nature and organizational behavior. We have been conditioned for so long to believe that only the experts have the answers that we have collectively and wrongly conceded the point and discounted our own and everyone else’s ability to have impact. Bill Joy, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, once said “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.” Prize based innovation is the way to organize and focus the world’s vast problem solving capacity onto the problems that matter.
    Particularly in a time of crisis like the Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico we should expect every conduit for solutions to be on and available. However for most organizations, they will most certainly resist openly or at least passively. Here’s why: What if someone outside of BP has the right answer? Organizations with closed cultures vigorously resist outside ideas – NIH (Not Invented Here) is everywhere in today’s institutions. Make no mistake: this is both the deeply held belief that they must be the only ones with the answers and the fear of needing to acknowledge the contrary.

    We cannot allow the old thinking to continue. This crisis is a perfect example and BP must recognize its limitations, resist the NIH mentality, and choose to open up the process.
    ***
    On how the Oil Spill Challenge is going …
    We already have hundreds of solution submissions to this Oil Spill Challenge. They are coming in through our normal online process, our blog, email, and discussion boards. This is the fastest ramp up of solutions we’ve ever measured – and that means something as we’ve done more innovation prizes than anyone. Fact is everyone is stepping up to make a difference here. We have solutions coming in from multi-prize winning Solvers, academics, ex oil industry engineers, and even class rooms and run the gamut from plugging the leak to contain the oil to remediating environmental impact.

    Now to be clear, these solutions include truly novel approaches, old ideas, and everything in between. The quality of submissions is truly amazing, particularly given the limited information available publicly. Not surprisingly, solutions improve the more open the information sharing, the better the feedback on what is working and not, and the more precise the descriptions of what defines success. Iterating solutions and guiding the Solvers and teams in real time is a best practice. The planet has tremendous productive capacity when focused, but they need to be engaged as a community and by a thoughtful process – that means if BP is serious about new approaches, they need to share data, provide real time feedback, guide the solver community, etc. In fact, as their own engineers are reacting to new information, they should post new problems to the crowds, challenging the world to respond “on demand” to needs as they evolve in the field. BP engineers should be engaging the world as a virtual team and vital partner in this crisis.

    ***
    BP needs to evolve its approach and open up now …
    While BP posting an online form may score from a public relations standpoint, they need to get serious right now. Even today the news is emerging that the size of the spill is actually understated considerably. Further, BP has already spent $450MM on cleanup and that’s just the beginning. I have every confidence that BP takes this situation very seriously and know stress levels are high. I also know setting oil slicks on fire in the Gulf of Mexico is not a sustainable remediation strategy. They say insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. Openly engaging the world in problem solving may be contrary to established corporate practice, but it’s time the pride and politics are cast aside. It is time for some new ideas.

    We have tried to contact BP numerous times to establish the channels and process quickly to allow them to engage this world of problem solvers productively and deliberately. InnoCentive and our Global Solver Community are doing this as a public service (no fees at all and no actual prize on this challenge) because we all understand the gravity of the environmental catastrophe in front of us.

    To the CEO of BP I say this: This is a worsening crisis. And you don’t have the answer yet. You need to start thinking differently right now. Task your teams to open this process up immediately, let us and other organizations assist. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose.
    ***
    And lastly, we do need to put in place an Emergency Response 2.0 system …
    InnoCentive stands ready to work with other organizations to “pre wire” the system so that it’s available “on demand” in crisis situations. See my blog posts over the last year on this topic – http://blog.innocentive.com/2009/05/08/time-for-emergency-response-system-20/. Government can do something amazing here through a public private partnership. We all inhabit the same planet. Whether it’s the next Katrina, earthquake, H1N1 outbreak, or oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, this affects all of us. Help us “officially” coordinate our efforts and do something meaningful. Private sector will gladly take the lead with your support if needed. But your help is needed. The next time crisis hits, we should not be spending weeks trying to coordinate access to resources that can help, we should be activating the system and getting to work.
    ***
    Darlene: your passion around science and technology, education and teaching, and engaging citizens and everyone in these areas is truly amazing. Thank you for being a spokesperson and an advocate in these vitally important areas. We’re big fans of yours at InnoCentive.

  13. ChrisD

    Why aren’t they helping already? Because the EPA told them to go away.

    No, probably because the guy’s name is “Wierd Koops”.

    “Hey, boss, there’s a Dutch guy on the phone who says he can help.”

    “Dutch guy? What Dutch guy? What’s his name?”

    “Wierd Koops.”

    “Right. Uh, tell him we’ll get back to him. Later.”

  14. Dark tent

    Oh, my

    After just reading Ms. Cavalier’s bio above (that she is a cheerleader), I can now see why someone has a problem with my previous reference to Obama as a “cheerleader for BP” — though that is precisely what he has acted like for the past 3 weeks.

    The truth is sometimes unpleasant.

    Perhaps you think that censorship of my comments will help hide the fact that that Obama has essentially sat idly by and let BP run the show for 3 weeks while millions of gallons of toxic crude have spewed into the gulf?

    I somehow doubt it.

    It’s pretty obvious. It’s clear from Obama’s latest press conference that even he recognizes that his own inaction has made him vulnerable to criticism.

    By the way, if you won’t print my comments, there’s not much point in my posting here in the future. B-bye.

    Cheers!

  15. hey there. I don’t have any control over the comments but I do know of another comment stuck in the admin area. I’ll let the good folks at Discover know that there may be a cog in the wheel. (I WAS a cheerleader :) but those days are long gone!)

  16. Dan Comeau

    I believe if they use an oil absorbent in the form of pellets it will remain on the surface and will be easier to collect. The oil can then be pressed from the absorbent at a later time. At least this will keep any heavy oil from sinking to the bottom.
    I know these products exist in the common workplace because they are sold through company safety officers. I am uncertain of the product name but I know one manufacturer known as the “New Pig” offers many variants of this.
    http://www.newpig.com

    Note: I have no affiliation nor do I stand to profit from suggesting this company.

  17. free thinker

    Oil slicks could be burned off by first spraying them from the air with chemicals designed to make them burn faster and at a higher temperature. Crude oil by itself does not burn very well–too many long chain hydrocarbons. You need to raise the temperature enough to volatilize these elements. Then you could get a sustained, high-temperature burn that would remove most of the oil in the slick. I have thought of collector vessels which would burn the oil in an enclosed space where higher temperatures could be achieved, but with the right chemicals I think open air burning could also be achieved. I don’t know enough chemistry to suggest the right mix of chemicals, but there are thousands which could be tried. I note that black gunpowder will cause a 50% mixture of water and alcohol to burn, and that powdered aluminum will burn with a very intense heat.

  18. Dark Tent

    “Blog science” at its very best:

    “I don’t know enough chemistry to suggest the right mix of chemicals, but…”

    …let’s dump hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of gallons of flammable (and undoubtedly toxic) chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico and light the whole damned thing on fire.

    Don’t forget the marshmallows and (Lindsey) Graham crackers — and to breath deeply.

  19. free thinker

    …let’s dump hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of gallons of flammable (and undoubtedly toxic) chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico and light the whole damned thing on fire.

    I knew some asshole would post something like this. Of course any additives would be chosen based on their toxicity and environmental impact–as well as their cost and availability. Probably the bulk of them would be organic and completely nontoxic–like sawdust or wood chips–but it would still be necessary to add small quantities of something which burned hot enough to volatilize the oil and create a self sustaining flame. It is a perfectly reasonable approach. Probably any college chemistry professor could you what you needed to use–or suggest a dozen possibilities.

  20. Dark tent

    It is a perfectly reasonable approach. Probably any college chemistry professor could you what you needed to use–or suggest a dozen possibilities.”

    It has nothing to do with being an asshole.

    You have no clue what you are talking about.

    You even admitted as much

  21. Jimbo

    First order of business is to shut off the flow of oil. Blow it up. Collapse the drill hole with tons of rock. It may take a low level nuke to do it, but the alternative is the literal death of the gulf (if we haven’t reached that point already). Of course BP has not even remotely considered this because of their reluctance to lose their investment – never mind the damage they have done.

    Then instead of using chemicals to dissolve and disperse the oil, spreading the damage far and wide, use chemicals to solidify the oil making it easier to retrieve and remove.

    Then start shutting down these platforms. As we now know, unless you are an oil tycoon, it ain’t worth the risk.

  22. Charles A. Bowsher

    Dear Mr. Mooney:
    I have been trying to submit my idea for harnessing the ongoing spill but BP nor the government will listen. They are also refusing to make public the submitted suggestions thereby leading to countless duplications by dedicated souls such as myself. This is the largest environmental disaster of our lifetimes (I hope) and rather than solving the problem, everyone is worried about how it plays PR wise. In short, what I propose is that a large “straw” be constructed out of 8-10 foot diameter culvert pipe or a canvas tube. This is then lowered down over the leak. The “straw” has a flexible weighted collar that will seal around the leaking riser. Boats on the surface can then pump the rising oil to waiting tankers, barges and inflatable bladders for transport to onshore refineries.

    Attached is the submission I sent to the joint task force. I am an independent inventor/creative who frankly can’t stop thinking about solving this crisis. I don’t want money, but I could use a little credit before I lose my home to foreclosure.
    Thanks for listening. Tomorrow I go to my local university to quiz some engineering professors to see if my idea is feasible. I am having trouble connecting with anyone who is competent to shoot it down. Everyone I have presented it to are intelligent we just don’t have a fluid dynamics background.

    This was submitted to the joint task force on Friday may 21 2010

    Brief description of technology (200 words or less)
    Please stop thinking of harnessing or stopping the pressure of the spewing oil and gas mixture. Let the pressure and flow assist you in the recovery of the oil and gas by directing its flow to the surface where recovery is simply a matter of pumping to waiting tankers, barges, and bladders. We have all seen these collapsible tubes/tunnels children crawl through or dogs run through in agility contests. They can be made to any length and nearly any diameter desired. The one I envision will be about five feet diameter, made of marine grade canvas or sailcloth, it could have an internal continual spiral of steel (similar to what is used as rebar in concrete columns) intermittently attached to cables which will be used to lower it into place over the leak in the riser pipe. I think the internal spiral is unnecessary. You apparently have three or more leaks so three or more will need to be constructed and deployed. Your pipe insertion method while useful to some extent is still not recovering anywhere near a majority of the spill let alone all of it as the method I proposed will. The bottom can be weighted with rubberized blasting mats.

    Material list (100 words or less)
    For each tube/tunnel you will need
    -One (1)- 5280 foot long five foot diameter marine canvas or sailcloth tube
    -Five (5) – 5,500 foot long steel cable 3/4″ to 1″ diameter
    -Hundreds of connectors to keep the tube together down its length.
    -Weighted flexible collar for the bottom of the tube so it sort of seals itself around the riser

    Optional
    -Six to Eight (6-8) miles of spiral (4’10″ diameter) formed 1/2″ to 3/4″ rebar joined at intervals (only necessary of the tube/tunnel collapses, I don’t think that will be a problem once this is put in place the tube will “fill itself”)
    -
    Equipment (100 words or less)
    Sewing machines to make the canvas/sailcloth tube and attach rings at intervals for the cable to pass through
    Winches to let down the cable and tube
    Ships to deploy this apparatus
    Tankers for recovering the gas and oil.
    Separator Pumps to recover the gas and oil as it comes to the surface
    The amazing robots to direct and place the open end of the tube above the leak.

    Expertise Required (100 words or less)
    Mine of course, call me, seriously though all kidding aside I think if you are reading this idea please get it to someone who can make it happen. Somebody with an open mind who can visualize and accept that sometimes the simplest solutions are really the best.

  23. Thank you, Charles. I will share this with the CEO of Innocentive who is in the process of linking smart solutions to the decision-makers at BP.

  24. Ann Casselman

    Dear Discover

    I have an idea. I am not an engineer but perhaps some brilliant engineer can transpose my idea into something possible.
    I have a drawing but it will not copy to your reply area.

    If you can picture a pipe with various varying shapes that are metal attached to the inside. The pipe can be screwed into the big oil leaking pipe and as it is screwed those pieces or large varying chards start to compact together. This minimizes the flow of oil and then BP can cap the well.

    Please call me if you have questions. Ann Casselman 518 692-2979

  25. Dora Dobbson

    How can I send to you or to any powerful person my idea regarding the oil spill stopping? I would need a fax number to be able to send drawings.
    It is simple, it is about how to entomb it with well footed domes.
    My phone number:805-404-6590
    It would be good to have a forum, to discuss with experts.
    Thanks
    Dora Dobbson

  26. Charles A. Bowsher

    The first I found
    on the tom ashbrook site

    “Dear Sirs,
    Apparently our solutions already invented for our Spanish disaster few years ago… told at that time to be too cheap to solve the problem… but we have patented it, proved it in a real case under the sea. It is an umbrella (soft made of kind of strong sail boat material with both soft or a bit stringer radios and with a pipe to suck and direct ALL the oil… Patent nr: 200.800.278. We can build the new one pretty fast and add small motors at its corners to be manipulated electronically from surface!”
    Posted by Patricia Rodriguez, on June 3rd, 2010 at 12:54 PM

    This is one of my ideas for cleanup.

    By the way I also have a cleanup idea that uses barges, tugboats and a “Coast Guard Approved” oil recovery mat called the Ottimat(tm) I ran across it while researching and it is a fantastic product. It is 99% human hair and 1% polypropylene, it is re-usable (up to 100 times)and effective. I contacted the Ottimat(tm) manufacturer and he says he can manufacture the Ottimat(tm) in ten foot widths to any length we want. I chose 300 feet long, he said no problem. My idea is to create “Oil Recovery Factories” that operate thusly.

    -We would want to deploy the mats all over a spill area, it takes a few minutes for the oil to soak in. Then the barges come along scooping up the leading edge of the Ottimat(tm) which is then passed through a device similar to what you used to see on the old ringer washers (this one would be ten or so feet wide) where it is squeezed out. The oil is thusly removed to the hold of the barge or its on board tanks. Once the Ottimat(tm) is squeezed out it is passed to the stern (rear) of the boat where it is redeployed. We might have to attach some kind of buoyancy material to the edges or the centers of the mats but we won’t know until we try it out. Repeat this process over and over and over all over any spill areas. So far I can’t seem to get any one listening on this one, though I have to admit I have concentrated on controlling the flowing oil because long range wise it is or should be our number one priority. Plus the more we can prevent from entering the water, the easier (relative term there) the subsequent cleanup.

    Another idea
    -is they should be dumping the hay and straw in the marsh areas just ahead of the “Spill tide” and then “capture” and squeeze it out when the “Spill tide” tries to go back to sea.

    That’s all I’ll post for know.

  27. John Conrad

    How can “solutions” be seriously assessed on their merits when the precise nature of the problem has not (for whatever reasons) been clearly and unequivocally stated?
    Specifically, is this stuff rising via the casing, or from around it, either immediately proximate to it or via lateral “sneak paths ” through porous deposits around it? Is the sub- sea casing believed to be essentially intact, intact but vertically displaced, and if compromised, in how many places and at what depth(s) below the sea bottom? Is their credible evidence to suggest that the originally impermeable roof containing the “find” has cracked or collapsed?
    This catastrophe has two distinct major dimensions to it; the first is the issue pertaining to source control/containment, and the second is the broader challenge related to control and mitigation of the secondary damages consequent to the first.
    What would be “cool” would be to establish first and foremost if there were plausible (preferably but not necessarily reversible) means for suppression at source without even having to resort to recovery or secondary drilling.

  28. Ray Hanawalt

    Pull the well casing allowing the gas pressure to expand the well diameter laterally which together with the great pressure at this depth will collapse the top of the well in upon itself cutting off the flow.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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