SCOTT SIMON, host:
While you may have been thumbing through your February 4th issue of Physical Review Letters, and I know I think they have the best coverage of the Kardasian sisters, you might've noticed an article entitled: Viscoelastic Suppression of Gravity-Driven Counterflow Instability. Wow. Maybe you went right past it. But it may have been worth a look because despite that title, the article describes how engineers might have been able to stop the BP blowout last year using a child's plaything.
Speaking of child's playthings...
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SIMON: ...we turn to NPR science correspondent Richard Harris with the story.
Richard, I think the best way, the best question to begin with is, huh?
RICHARD HARRIS: Well, Scott, if you look in front of you, they're something that may or may not be familiar to you, this is the child's plaything it's called Oobleck.
SIMON: Right, which a cornstarch and water...
HARRIS: Mix, and in this case, with a little green food coloring, just for amusement sake, try stirring it very slowly and you notice you can actually stir if you're going nice and slowly.
SIMON: Yes. Right.
HARRIS: Try to stir it fast. What happens?
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HARRIS: It turns stiff.
HARRIS: It absolutely becomes a solid material. It's the strangest thing, just cornstarch and water and it has these bizarre properties. Well, lets turn the clock back to last May when the BP oil well in the Gulf was flowing out of control. U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu decided to put together a small group of creative physicists to offer him advice about the catastrophe.
One of them was a guy named Jonathan Katz, a physics professor at Washington University in St. Louis. Well, Katz was on hand when BP tried to stop the well by pumping dense fluid called drilling mud down it, the so-called top-kill approach. It failed.
Dr. JONATHAN KATZ (Physics, Washington University): But we'd predicted that. So we're I guess disappointed like everybody else was, but not enormously surprised. And so I was scratching my head and saying is there some solution to this problem.
HARRIS: The problem, as Katz saw it, was that oil and gas blasting up the well tended to break up the drilling mud into fine particles and a light mist like that ends up getting shot up the pipe and dumped onto the seafloor. Katz wondered whether there was some kind of fluid that wouldn't immediately be dispersed into itty bitty particles when it encountered the rapidly flowing oil.
Dr. KATZ: And I realized after a while that, hey, wait a second. Cornstarch suspensions - oobleck, the kids call it - has this wonderful property that if it's not flowing rapidly it's a liquid that flows pretty well. But if you try to make it flow rapidly it suddenly turns stiff and elastic and doesn't flow at all.
HARRIS: Oobleck versus a stream of bubbling hot oil? Really? Yeah, really.
Dr. KATZ: Made some rough estimates. It looked like it was going to work.
HARRIS: And Katz had an inside track here. Being on the energy secretary's advisory panel, he participated in daily phone briefings and frequent email exchanges. He had about as much access as you could hope.
Dr. KATZ: So I certainly sent it to everybody on the list. And I don't know who read it. You can never tell.
HARRIS: Katz was actually dismissed from the panel shortly thereafter. People discovered some controversial social opinions on his website. Even so, Katz says he still dreamed that his idea could solve the problem and end in triumph. Of course it didn't work out that way.
Dr. KATZ: I don't fault the pros. They have a toolbox. They use the tools in their toolbox. This isn't the place to do physics experiments, especially not ones that would cost quite a bit of money.
HARRIS: Cornstarch is cheap, but the rest of the operation would not be.
Dr. KATZ: And of course the drilling mud industry isn't used to mixing cornstarch into their stuff. So it would've been completely new for them. It wasn't something they had available in their tanks, you know, ready to go. They would've had to prepare a custom solution, put it on the barges and take it out to the well.
HARRIS: Not happening. Instead, after BP stopped the well through more conventional means, Katz and some associates at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory did a small-scale experiment with cornstarch and mineral oil. And, as they report in that Physical Review Letters article, it performed as Katz has predicted, under these highly idealized circumstances.
Whether it would have worked in the real world is an open question. Steve Wereley, who teaches fluid dynamics at Purdue University, says the concept is clever.
Dr. STEVE WERELEY (Engineering, Purdue University): The problem with using something like cornstarch and water is getting it to where it needs to be.
HARRIS: You'd have to pump a lot of it, fast, into the well, if it's going to work. And picture what it would look like inside a pump. Remember, oobleck gets stiff when it's under pressure.
Dr. WERELEY: It would tend to create that same reaction when you're trying to pump it down the hole.
HARRIS: And that would make pumping it just about impossible.
A BP spokeswoman told NPR their engineers reviewed the idea and decided it wouldn't work. Katz still figures it's a good idea, worth exploring for the next time.
SIMON: Richard, thanks so much.
HARRIS: My pleasure.
SIMON: You can learn how to make your own batch of oobleck at NPR.org.
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