UT Engineering Faculty, Researchers Consulted on Oil Spill

aerial view of the gulf oil spill

This May 24 satellite image prepared by the Center for Space Research shows New Orleans in the upper left-hand corner, with the Mississippi River and bird's foot delta extending toward the southeast. Heavy concentrations of oil on the surface of the Gulf are found to the south and southeast of the delta. Some oil is seen reaching the marshland of the delta between the distributaries. Also, eddies are peeling sheets of oil from the main mass and transporting them northward and eastward in a series of gyres.

The Center for Space Research sends the images to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Pollution Surveillance Team in Maryland. They prepare the daily spill extent and trajectory maps used by the federal and state agencies responding to the event.

Since the April 20 BP oil rig explosion and the ensuing unprecedented loss of oil into the Gulf of Mexico, University of Texas at Austin faculty and researchers in petroleum engineering, aerospace engineering and other areas have responded.

In the first few days after the disaster, petroleum engineering department chair Tad Patzek met with BP top level officials, and a group of industry and academic experts, to explore options to stop the oil flow from the blow-out.  Patzek suggested deployment of light-weight “umbrellas,” tested in Norway and designed to suck in and focus the oil plume at a shallow depth below the water surface.

“This system of umbrellas suspends from umbilical cords that allow them to pump water and oil up to the sea surface at a high rate,” says Patzek.  “The umbrellas act as powerful “vacuum cleaners” that suck in much of the rising plume before it reaches the sea surface.   Unlike the other dome options used to cover the failed blow-out preventer, the umbrellas are not susceptible to hydrate plugging and can be redeployed in hours depending on the changes of sea currents.”

Dr. Bommer and NY Times logo

Dr. Paul Bommer

Petroleum engineering faculty Paul Bommer and Martin Chenevert, along with Patzek continue to spend many hours providing technical background and interviews to national news media as they explore the cause and solutions to the disaster. Columns in the New York Times, appearances on ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, and commentary in the Wall Street Journal have become daily tasks for these three experts in oil and gas drilling. 

To help limit the oil’s spread to environmentally sensitive areas, aerospace engineering faculty Clint Dawson and Center for Space Research engineer Gordon Wells quickly responded to the disaster by providing  real-time satellite images of the oil spill to the 30 relief agencies.  Using the center's three rooftop antennas that receive regular satellite photos from the 14 American and international satellites passing over the Gulf, Wells can provide images 3 hours faster than NASA. 

 "These images are critical because a lot of the operational plans are based upon receiving these early images we get by direct broadcast," Wells told Austin’s NBC TV news affiliate.

In addition, Dawson and Wells immediately wrote a proposal requesting funds to create models to forecast the leaked oil’s behavior in the event of a hurricane.  Within 24 hours the National Science Foundation funded their request for 1 million hours of super computer time. 

Their complex computer calculation will consider wind, weather and tide data, and create 3D models that predict in detail what happens when and how the oil will move, also taking into account currents, marshes and vegetation. 

"What they can do with that is place their booms, relocate their personnel, if they have a 72-hour window of opportunity," said Dawson told news reporters.

Dawson and Wells have international reputations for effectively modeling hurricane affects on the Gulf Coast, so their models will include projections of the effects of the oil if it is carried inland by hurricane forces.  The two have also spent significant time explaining the project to Computerworld, the Dallas Morning News and local Austin television stations, as well as others. 

The Energy Institute held a public forum to bring together university experts in petroleum engineering, geology, law, business and the environment.  The forum was webcast as well as reported by KUT public radio and the Austin American Statesman.

Dr. Tad Patzek on ABC

Petroleum Engineering Department Chair Tad Patzek contributed to ABC's oil spill coverage. Watch the video here.

Dr. Dawson on KXAN

KXAN interviewed Cockrell School faculty Gordon Wells and Clint Dawson about their work using satellite imaging to aid the relief effort. Watch the video here.