Science on Tap forum features Purdue expert on BP Gulf oil spill

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Purdue mechanical engineering professor Steve Wereley, who has gained international attention for his analysis of the potential size of the BP PLC oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, will be the featured speaker Thursday (June 17) at the next Science on Tap forum.

Steve Wereley Purdue Prof Mechanical Engineering

Purdue mechanical engineering professor Steve Wereley will be the featured speaker Thursday (June 17) at the next Science on Tap forum.

Wereley’s presentation, “Analyzing Disaster: A Nanoscale Guy Stumbles into a Mega Problem Measuring the Size of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill,” will begin at 6 p.m. in the upstairs of the Lafayette Brewing Company, 622 Main St., in downtown Lafayette.

The event, sponsored by Discovery Park, the Purdue School of Mechanical Engineering and Birck Nanotechnology Center, is free and open to the public to those ages 21 or older.

“Building on my research career in the field of nano- and microfluidics and writing a textbook on a technique for accurately measuring flow, the BP oil spill case has opened up a whole new field of research that is likely to keep me busy for a while,” said Wereley, whose research laboratory is in Discovery Park’s Birck Nanotechnology Center.

The monthly Science on Tap program provides faculty from Purdue the opportunity to share their research activities in an informal setting, touching on subjects and providing presentations that are designed to appeal to a more general audience.

“The ongoing oil spill has shown me the important role that engineering and science can play in assessing the impact of this significant environmental disaster, the extent of the cleanup process, and the oil spill’s potential long-term effects,” Wereley said. “This upcoming Science on Tap program will provide a terrific forum for sharing the latest details on my role in this ongoing disaster.”

Wereley joined a team of U.S. engineers and scientists that released a U.S. Department of Interior report on Thursday (June 10), showing that 25,000-30,000 barrels of oil per day are likely leaking from the BP well. That’s significantly higher than the team’s May 27 estimate of 12,000-19,000 barrels a day.

The daily flow rates translate into a total of 1.3 million to 1.5 million barrels of oil that have leaked into the Gulf since the Deepwater Horizon explosion on April 20 that killed 11 workers. Now considered the worst in U.S. history, the BP oil spill off the coast of Louisiana is roughly five to six times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill of March 1989. That spill is estimated to have dumped 250,000 barrels of oil, or 10.8 million gallons, into Prince William Sound in Alaska.

Initial estimates by BP and the federal government indicated that 5,000 barrels a day had flowed from the BP well into the Gulf.

The latest oil flow figures are based on data gathered by the federal interagency team, the Flow Rate Technical Group, before BP cut a pipe – called a riser – on June 3.

Wereley and his colleagues plan to issue a third report from the period after the riser was cut and before a containment dome was placed over the damaged well 5,000 feet below the surface on June 4. Since then, BP has been funneling some oil and gas to a drill ship stationed above the spill.

U.S. Interior Department officials say the research teams are using several separate methodologies to calculate their estimates:

— One team that included Wereley took video of the plume of oil escaping from the pipe and fed it through computer models. The new result from the Plume Modeling Team ranged from 20,000-40,000 barrels per day, with the most likely value in the 25,000-30,000 barrels per day range. That is up from 12,000-25,000 barrels in the initial analysis.

– Another technique from the Mass Balance Team relied on a NASA plane that could differentiate oil from water on the Gulf surface. That produced a revised estimate of 12,600-21,500 barrels a day.

Wereley’s role in the current disaster began May 12 when BP released an initial 30-second video clip of oil gushing from the 21.5-inch pipe. The Purdue professor used a technique called particle image velocimetry (PIV) to create freeze-frame shots from the video. From there, he ran a computer analysis to estimate how far in terms of pixels that the identifiable clumps of oil moved.

Wereley, who has co-written a textbook on particle image velocimetry, then created a conversion from pixels to inches based on the pipe’s size to compute how fast oil was flowing from the pipe. Using the area of the pipe and the speed of the oil, he concluded that 56,000-84,000 barrels of oil and gas, had been leaking daily into the Gulf during that five-week period.

That flow rate was nearly 10 times higher than other estimates at that time and an amount that would fill more than 50 swimming pools per day.

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One Response to “Science on Tap forum features Purdue expert on BP Gulf oil spill”

  1. wnettles says:

    Maybe I am missing something here, but, as I work in the remote robotics field, it would seem to me that a hydraulically expandable plug could be inserted in the pipe, then, inflated with sufficient pressure (around 350 psi) to stop the flow of oil from the pipe. I realize that it is over 5000 feet down to the pipe, but, it is doable.
    To make sure that the plug stays put in the pipe and does not blow out, a binary component, pressure activated epoxy sealant could be used between the sealant rings to insure permanence. While we are dealing with the hydraulics, the plug could be made with external ratcheting cleats that grip the pipe from the inside, once inserted, and locked permanently in place.
    This technology is not new, and, is pretty common in industries that deal with catastrophic containment and damage mitigation. I am surprised that BP did not employ this kind of a fix within the first couple of weeks of the spill.
    Just a suggestion. Don’t quite know where to send it to, so, I posted it here.


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