My 7-year-old son figured out how to stop the gushing oil well. As a ‘manager’ I ran a small experiment and led him to a sensible answer. I turned on the garden hose and asked my son how he would stop the flow of water without turning off the spigot. His first reaction was to step on the hose. When that didn’t fully do the trick he proceeded to cover the end of the hose with his hand. By now the flow was only 20% of the original, and my son was drenched. He then looked at me and said, “dad, if we can push something into this ‘hole’ so that I can hold it with my hand I think I can stop it!” EUREKA!, the kid figured it out…
I quickly sketched an adapted version of the “plug-and-hand” for the gushing well. After all, the two physics concepts at play here are: 1) Pressure, 2) Area of the orifice… and the rules that apply on the surface also apply at 5000ft under water.
The problem that has plagued BP is that they failed miserably at containment (and their management is fully responsible for this). In their mind, this oil is being wasted, and every solution they try to come up with is one way or another trying to ‘recover’ some of the oil. They have been trying to somehow capture and transport the oil to surface ships thus spending all their brain power on pie in the sky solutions that have never been tried before. This problem is systematic and likely not isolated to BP, but to every single oil company out there. When you consider the cost of drilling a well, every containment solution which has been developed has to do with the ability to continue recovering the oil. Even the blowout preventer is designed to be “re-tapped”. Except for the ‘top-kill’ process, not a single solution exists in an oil company’s arsenal to fully and completely disable a well.
In the context of ideation or brainstorming, the problem or challenge was incorrectly framed by BP management and perhaps even the US government. BP has clearly been looking for solutions that can recover some or all of the oil (until that relief well is completed), and the US government has been focused on cleanup and containment (how to keep the oil from damaging the shoreline)… but no one has truly looked at how to effectively plug the well.
Granted, this solution is in its simplest form, but I’m sure that the “engineers” which have the schematics of the blowout preventer, the size of the pipe and oil pressure which must be suppressed can define a variation that can effectively “PLUG THE WELL”.
The irony here, is that in BP’s struggle to ‘salvage’ some of the oil in order to sell it, they have effectively incurred more costs on the cleanup bill.
So the moral of the story… there are two:
1) As the Baden-Powell once said: “Be prepared.”
2) Not framing the problem correctly can lead to a tremendous waste of “collective-intelligence. This can be the difference between over-engineering a solution and finding one ‘under our noses’.