Following the blow-out of the Macondo well (BP oil spill) in the Gulf of Mexico (April 20, 2010) Prof. Katz was appointed to Secretary of Energy Chu’s scientific advisory panel. This experience led him to conceive a novel composition of drilling mud, involving a dilatant polymer that could make the mud viscoelastic, in order to suppress instabilities that would otherwise occur. In collaboration with Richard Garwin (also on the panel) he predicted that attempts at top kill with conventional muds would only lead to that mud being spat out the well-head with the escaping oil. This prediction was borne out when top kill was attempted with conventional muds and failed. Prof. Katz then organized, in collaboration with Peter Beiersdorfer and his team at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, an experimental effort to test the prediction that a viscoelastic mud would not suffer such instabilities. The prediction was verified, and a paper reporting these results has been submitted for publication.
Adding cornstarch to the mud used for the Top Kill would have changed the mud so that it would have not broken up when trying to suppress the high pressure oil.
To work for the top kill, the mud would need to behave less like ketchup and more like quicksand.
Ketchup is what is known as a shear-thinning fluid. Initially it resists flowing. It begins to flow only when the pressure of your fingers on the bottle produces a stress on the condiment that is greater than what is called the yield stress. But after that, it flows freely.
Or as they used to say in the ketchup commercial “Anticipation is making me wait.”
Other examples of shear-thinning fluids are toothpaste, mayonnaise, mustard, and –crucially– drilling mud, which is typically a slurry, or watery mixture, of clay and other minerals.
To suppress instability the mud needed to be a shear-thickening rather than a shear-thinning fluid–like the quicksand. As every reader of the Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook knows, when you fall into quicksand, it is important to move slowly. The faster you move, the more the quicksand resists your movement.
The additive Katz suggested wasn’t esoteric or expensive. It was the kitchen staple cornstarch.
If you mix cornstarch and water, pour it in a cookie pan and slap it with your open hand, it doesn’t spatter. You can let your hand sink into it but you can’t easily jerk it out. Children play with it, and recipes for cornstarch “oobleck” can be found on the web.
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