Bomb Designer, Mars Expert Sent by Obama to Fix Oil Spill
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu signaled his lack of confidence in the industry experts trying to control BP Plc’s leaking oil well by hand-picking a team of scientists with reputations for creative problem solving.
Dispatched to Houston by President Barack Obama to deal with the crisis, Chu said Wednesday that five “extraordinarily intelligent” scientists from around the country will help BP and industry experts think of back-up plans to cut off oil from the well, leaking 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) below sea-level.
Members of the Chu team are credited with accomplishments including designing the first hydrogen bomb, inventing techniques for mining on Mars and finding a way to precisely position biomedical needles.
“I don’t think there is a lot of confidence in BP in Washington right now,” David Pursell, a managing director at Tudor Pickering Holt & Co. LLC in Houston, said by phone. Chu’s decision to bring in additional scientists may reflect that concern, he said.
BP’s effort to use robots on the seafloor to close off the well failed, and a 40-foot steel structure meant to cap the leak was scuttled when the containment box became clogged with an icy slush of seawater and gas. BP now is deliberating between using a smaller containment chamber to control the well or inserting a tube directly into the leaking pipe to channel the oil.
Chu said he’s tasked his team to develop “plan B, C, D, E and F” in addition to finding a way to stop the oil leak.
“Things are looking up, and things are getting much more optimistic,” the Nobel-prize winning physicist said after meeting with the scientists and BP in Houston Wednesday.
BP CEO Meeting
The group convened at BP’s command center in Houston yesterday, where they met with BP leadership, including Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward, the Energy Department said. BP is using more than 500 specialists from almost 100 organizations and welcomes additional help, Jon Pack, a BP spokesman, said by phone.
Their exact activities are cloaked in secrecy. “We saw some confidential and proprietary information,” said one scientist on the team, Jonathan I. Katz, a physics professor at Washington University in St. Louis.
Katz’s early work focused on astrophysics, but now he consults on a wide variety of physics puzzles, he said. He is a member of the JASON group, a think tank dedicated to researching complex problems for the U.S. Government, including the Defense Department.
In a telephone interview from his home in Missouri, Katz skipped across topics: computer models for global warming, equality in college admissions and the Mpemba effect -- the observation that, in specific circumstances, warmer water freezes faster than colder water.
Katz, 59 wrote articles that he has labeled as “thought- provoking” on his personal website, including, “Don’t Become a Scientist,” “In Defense of Homophobia” and “Why Terrorism is Important.”
“The best physicists have been very broad people,” he said.
Chu chose another JASON think tank member, Richard L. Garwin, for his oil spill taskforce. Garwin, 82, a physicist and IBM Fellow Emeritus, is a military-technology and arms-control consultant to the U.S. government. He helped design the first hydrogen bomb in 1951, according to the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“To do interesting science, the whole point is not just to follow the beaten track, but find something new,” Freeman Dyson, another JASON member, said about Garwin.
Garwin, 82, held a 1991 symposium of academic scientists, explosives experts, firefighters and oilmen to grapple with how to stem oil flows from hundreds of wells Iraq set on fire in Kuwait during the Persian Gulf War, according to a summary of the event. Garwin declined to comment on the meeting in Houston, but confirmed his experience with Kuwait’s oil wells in an interview.
BP has described conditions around its leaking offshore well as resembling those in outer space. Chu selected one scientist with experience operating on Mars, George Cooper, a civil engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley.
Cooper once worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to modify mining techniques on earth for use on Mars, said Berkeley Professor Juan Pestana, who leads the GeoEngineering section in which Cooper is an emeritus professor.
Cooper did not respond to e-mails or telephone messages.
Five Dozen Patents
Chu also selected Alexander Slocum, a professor of mechanical engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, who holds more than five dozen patents for devices related to biotechnology, robotics and computer science.
On his website, Slocum describes his research interests delving into nanotechnology, precision engineering, “and staying down longer while SCUBA diving.” He did not respond to telephone calls or e-mails.
“He has a lot of creative ideas. One in 10 are really brilliant ideas, but nine are dumb,” said MIT professor Wai K. Cheng, a colleague in Slocum’s department. “You can’t miss that one that is brilliant.”
The team is rounded out by Tom Hunter, 64, from Sandia Laboratories, which conducts research for the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Hunter has been with Sandia since 1967, and served as president of Sandia Corporation, which manages the lab, since 2005.
“We’re using some X-ray type technology that Sandia labs has,” Doug Suttles, BP’s chief operating officer for exploration and production, said today in an interview on CNN.
Chris Miller, a Sandia spokesman, said Hunter didn’t have time to comment.
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