Special Reports

Oil spill solutions coming from everywhere

Ideas are pouring forth almost as fast as the oil that continues to gush into the Gulf.

At BP and government offices, on YouTube, Facebook, radio talk shows and in newspapers, Americans are brimming with plots and plans, sketches and schemes to stop the leak.

They range from earnest (“drop concrete blocks on it”) to silly (“two words: ear wax”) to kind of mean, like the Facebook group titled “1,000,000 people who want to plug the leak with Sarah Palin.”

In Houston, BP has received 40,000 suggestions, and about 250 of them have made it to the point of serious consideration, said spokesman Toby Odone.

“It’s amazing. People are just desperate to get their ideas out there and help,” he said. BP, which set up a phone line and website to accept suggestions, isn’t ready to reveal any of them, he said.

The company has made some progress stopping the free flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. A containment cap over the well is capturing perhaps 11,000 barrels a day. But for anguished Gulf residents scooping tarballs from white beaches, and for the rest of the country heartsick at photos of pelicans struggling in oil, the urge to find a solution — to do something — is strong.

Some of the ideas might actually work, scientists say. Like actor Kevin Costner’s oil-separation centrifuges, or the oil-eating bacteria proposed by a Denver biological company.

A few are scary. Are we really ready to nuke the well, as one YouTube fan suggested?

Or, as another urged, cut a large hole in a supertanker and sink it over the leak?

OK. And then what?

Other YouTube suggestions were equally creative. Lower 300-pound steel balls on cables and drop them into the open pipe. Scoop up oily sand from beaches, put it into sandbags and drop them over the leak. Make a huge screw and screw it into the opening on the blow-out preventer.

Some ideas are more practical than they sound. Several Facebook pages suggest creating ‘‘super bugs’’ in laboratories to eat the oil. Turns out these already exist, except they were created by Mother Nature.

They’re microbes. Bacteria. Biology geeks call them Alcanivorax borkumensis.

“Once applied to the oil, the microbes eat it, leaving a natural waste product that is harmless to marine life,” says Brent Tuttle, engineer/owner of a Denver biological firm that could supply the microbes.

Oil-eating microbes occur naturally in water, use hydrocarbons as fuel and emit — unfortunately — the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, according to Scientific American magazine.

Sarasota-based Osprey Biotechnics also creates a bacteria compound, a product called Munox, that devours oil.

“If given an opportunity, we can be an integral part of cleaning up the coastal waters as well as oil-contaminated sand,” said Victoria Finley, vice president of business development at Osprey Biotechnics. “We have inventory on site — enough to make hundreds of thousands of gallons of product — that would be capable of being applied to the coastal cleanup.”

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist contacted the company Thursday to learn more about the bacteria it manufactures.

Could bacteria work?

“It could help, but probably not on a very big scale,” says Chris Reddy, marine chemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

After the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989, workers sprayed concentrations of such microbes on oil-coated rocks with some success, Reddy said. So they might help in limited areas along oil-soaked beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.

But they can’t be multiplied and controlled well enough to help against, say, deep plumes of oil in the Gulf.

“They’re like teenagers,” Reddy says. “You can’t tell them what to do.”

Another serious proposal comes from actor/environmentalist Costner, who held a press conference in New Orleans to demonstrate centrifuge oil-separation machines he has financed with $24 million of his own money.

Upset by the Exxon Valdez spill off Alaska in 1989, the Field of Dreams actor set up a company with his scientist brother, Dan, in 1999 to develop the machines.

In the demonstration, his machine easily separated diesel fuel from water and pumped each into different tanks.

“We’re prepared to go out and solve problems, not just talk about them,” Costner said.

Odom, the BP spokesman, said his company is testing Costner’s machines in the open water.

Another serious idea — although it didn’t work out in the end — was to soak up the oil with hair. Since early April, hair salons, pet groomers and even some alpaca ranchers have been saving clippings and sending them to a nonprofit group in San Francisco called Matter of Trust to stuff into oil-soaking booms.

Owner Ana La Bella shipped the firm a month’s worth of clippings from La Bella Salon in Coral Gables.

But in late May, NOAA’s Louisiana scientific support center tested the hair-filled booms and said they didn’t work as well as regular booms because they sank too readily. Matter of Trust didn’t return repeated calls and e-mails. But its e-mails to fans say it is still collecting “hair, fur and fleece’’ and trying to get someone else to use the booms.

Ratner Companies, owner of nearly 1,000 Hair Cuttery and other salons, collected 4,000 pounds of hair in the past month, but stopped when NOAA rejected the hair booms.

“We feel we did the right thing,” said Ratner spokeswoman Diane Daly. La Bella also has stopped collecting trimmings.

“It’s very disappointing. We’re just trying to help.”

CNN and the New York Post are touting 21-year-old engineer Alia Sabur of Long Island and her elaborate drawing in which a new pipe is ringed with auto tires and inserted into the broken pipe, and the tires then are inflated with hydraulic fluid to seal in the new pipe. She presented the idea to a BP exec in the Gulf, she says.

“He said it was impressive,” she said in a CNN video.

She hasn’t heard back.

Finally, there’s the YouTube user who lost patience entirely: “The only piece of human technology that might address this is a nuclear bomb. I’m not kidding. If they put a nuke down there in the right spot it might seal up the hole.”

Oddly, it’s not even a new idea. A May 13 article in Pravda, a Russian periodical, said the Soviet Union in the 1960s and ‘70s used nuclear explosives five times to stop leaks in oil and gas wells — at least on land. With one gas well in Soviet Central Asia that was blazing uncontrollably, they dug down 900 feet and set off a 30-kiloton blast that instantly put out the fire.

Sorry, YouTube user, BP actually laughed at this one.

Said Odom: “One philosophy we’re trying to follow here is not to make things even worse.”

— Grace Gagliano, Herald Business Writer, contributed to this report.

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