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Sandia Official Aids Oil Spill Effort

By John Fleck
Copyright © 2010 Albuquerque Journal
Journal Staff Writer

          There was a moment in late May at the Deepwater Horizon command center, Tom Hunter recalled, when it seemed there was a chance to stop the spewing oil.
        For much of the last eight weeks, the command center in Houston has been a second home for Hunter, director of Sandia National Laboratories. Deputized by Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Hunter heads the team of U.S. national lab scientists working on the problem.
        The moment of hope came in the last week in May. Federal officials and engineers from oil company BP were taking one of their last best shots at stopping the oil that had been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico since April 20, when a deadly explosion and fire destroyed the Deep Horizon drilling rig.
        Workers were furiously pumping drilling mud down the well in an attempt to counteract the pressure of oil surging up from below, a trick they called "top kill." Watching data on the screens at the Houston command center, Hunter and Chu could see pressure levels dropping in the damaged, leaking sea floor rig, a sign the mud might be winning.
        Then frustration set in, as the pressure levels flat-lined and progress stopped.
        Hunter got the first call from Chu on the last Friday in April, 10 days after the Deep Horizon blast, as it was becoming clear the people working on the problem needed help.
        Could Hunter pull together a team of specialists from Sandia and the nation's other two nuclear weapons labs, Los Alamos in northern New Mexico and Lawrence Livermore in California, to see what help the federal research centers might be able to offer?
        In the two months since, a team of up to a dozen scientists from the labs have staffed the Houston Deepwater Horizon joint command center day and night, with a couple of hundred scientists back at the three lab sites working on pieces of the problem.
        BP engineers had turned to the labs for help in providing a detailed understanding of what was going on a mile beneath the sea. At the time, oil was leaking from a crimped and crumpled string of drill pipe. A kink in the pipe seemed to be holding back some of the flow, but there were fears the kink might break, significantly increasing the flow of oil.
        To understand the risk, they needed to X-ray the pipe. Mobile X-ray equipment is routinely used in oil fields, but the equipment was not sensitive enough to reveal what the engineers needed to know about the crimped pipe. Nuclear weapon scientists routinely use powerful X-rays to study metal objects, so the team brought in experts and equipment from Los Alamos to help, Hunter said.
        The X-rays showed the kink was stable, unlikely to suddenly break.
        The lab team was also in the middle of the lengthy analysis of how much oil was flowing from the well. Using measurements taken from high-definition video, along with simulations run on lab supercomputers, the scientists were part of a federal team that compared the results of various methods to come up with an estimate released June 15 of 35,000 to 60,000 barrels per day of gushing oil.
        While the late May failure of the "top kill" effort was a setback, the work didn't stop. "You just have to move on," Hunter said.
        The labs had been helping with the detailed characterization of what was happening inside the sea bottom well and the equipment through which the oil was flowing, estimating pressures and flow velocities.
        The addition of the drilling mud in the unsuccessful "top kill" had changed things, and the scientists had to update their calculations, answering the question of where the mud went. That was important for designing the next step, the "top hat" device that was placed atop the leaking well to funnel some of the oil to the surface.
        The lab scientists are also helping evaluate an option that would replace the "top hat" funnel with something that creates a tighter seal, leaving less oil leaking out around the edges.
        And they are also beginning the analysis of the effects of the relief wells, drilled as a last-ditch effort to connect with and shut off the leaking well deep beneath the ocean floor.
        "We're looking at all those questions," Hunter said.
        The work provides an odd bookend to Hunter's career. Before he started at Sandia as a nuclear weapons engineer, he worked as an oil rig worker. Now, within two weeks of his retirement from Sandia, he is back on an oilfield project, although in a very different way.
        Working eight weeks straight on the project, while simultaneously planning for a management transition as he leaves Sandia's directorship, has been "an endurance challenge," he acknowledged.
        Hunter said it is unclear whether he'll continue working on Deepwater Horizon after his Sandia retirement becomes official July 9. He does know that, at that point, the oil will likely still be leaking.
        "What I do know," he said, "is that by July 9 it won't be over."

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