Wondering why it's taking BP so long to get a handle on the oil spill that is currently ravaging the Gulf Coast? Simple: We're still using much of the same cleanup technology that has been used for the past 40 years, including burning and skimming oil. If there was ever a time to innovate, this is it. But is anyone innovating?
Not all of BP's oil spill cleanup techniques are old--they're just unproven or dangerous. Recently, for example, cleanup officials have begun to deploy chemical dispersants on the water's surface to break down the oil. There's just one problem: The product contains 2-butoxyethanol, a compound associated with headaches, vomiting, and reproductive problems at high doses. And according to OnEarth, toxic chemical dispersants can kill fish and other wildlife--exactly the problem that the dispersants are trying to prevent.
Then there is the underwater dome idea. BP engineers are attempting to build a massive underwater dome to trap oil and prevent it from rising to the surface. The only problem here is that the technology has never been used in such deep water. No harm in trying now, though, right?
One technique that seems a bit more promising is remote sensing (pictured above). Discovery reports that aerial remote sensing and detection equipment currently being developed by the Minerals Management Service uses light waves to differentiate between thick and light oil sheens. Thick oil is more hazardous, so engineers could potentially use the technology to attack the spill at its worst points first.
Engineers and government organizations aren't the only ones coming up with creative solutions. A public charity called Matter of Trust is asking salons and retailers around the country to send all the hair and nylons they can get their hands on as part of an effort to make ultra-effective booms, or floating barriers that suck up oil. [UPDATE: Petco and other pet groomers are donating hair to help clean up the Gulf, too.] Booms are traditionally filled with air or Styrofoam, but as anyone who has ever had a bad hair day knows, hair is great at retaining oil. "We're just taking the nylons, stuffing them with hair, and turning them into booms," explained Lisa Gautier, the President of Matter of Trust. So far, Matter of Trust has collected 400,000 pounds of hair. The process is efficient, too. "Because this is an emergency oil spill, all the salons on our website are getting emails with addresses where they can send boxes of hair directly to people that are making booms on site near the beaches," she said.
Of course, none of the solutions mentioned above can stop or even slow down the spill by themselves. InnoCentive is hoping to inspire budding oil spill cleanup entrepreneurs with the Emergency Response 2.0 : Solutions to Respond to Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Web site usually offers cash rewards for unique ideas, but not in this case. InnoCentive explains:
This is an Emergency Situation Challenge and will be quite different than any other Challenge we have run on the InnoCentive website. No one has requested us to do this and InnoCentive is not getting paid to run this Challenge. We are doing it because we believe our Solver base can and will help and we will do everything we can to get solutions into the hands of the appropriate responders. This is an experiment and we believe our Solvers will answer this call for help. We believe trying to mitigate this international disaster is the right thing to do. Your submission will identify and describe a solution that can help prevent further damage caused by the explosion and ongoing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. You are required to give InnoCentive and any emergency respondents a free, perpetual, and non-exclusive license to use any information submitted for this Challenge specifically to be used for this oil spill crisis. You will still retain ownership of any idea submitted.
Anyone with a good idea can also go straight to the EPA, which is asking participants to submit potential solutions here. If either InnoCentive or the EPA receive any truly brilliant submissions, rest assured we'll hear about it.
[Hair image via Oren Zebest on flickr]