Once an oil tanker's hull ruptures, there isn't much that can be done to avoid environmental damage. Responses are limited to dealing with the oil after the spill--containing the slick inside a floating corral, for instance, then skimming it off the water.
Scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory, however, think there is a way to prevent spills by plugging the hole to keep most of the oil inside the ship. They're working on a way to slap a bandage on the leak from the outside, using patches that resemble an artist's mural-size stretched-canvas frames. Divers would cover the hole with a tough, waterproof fabric--bolting several frames together to span gaping ruptures--then secure the patch in place with huge, superpowerful magnets. An elastic gasket around the edges would block small leaks until the tanker could limp back to port. The Los Alamos researchers believe that most leaks could be plugged within an hour after the divers arrive, soon enough to prevent much of the leaking.