It's the billion-dollar question for offshore drilling giants: Could the Deepwater Horizon disaster have been prevented? Researchers at MIT's Impact and Crashworthiness Laboratory may have found at least a partial answer—the same kind of computer modeling that predicts whether car components can hold their own in a crash could also forecast whether pipes will fracture at offshore drilling sites. A fractured pipe can mean the difference between a stable operation and a massive oil spill.
The MIT researchers' method combines computer simulations with physical experiments for forecasting. In the automobile industry, this translates to cutting out samples from a commonly used material like steel, spraying the sample with small dots, sticking the cutout into a machine and bombarding it with different kinds of structural loads. A camera takes pictures of the material as it bears the impact, and send the images to a computer that maps the dots along a grid to point out where and when deformations showed up.
A similar method of testing a variety of sizes and shapes of materials under varying degrees of pressure could also work with deep water drilling pipes, which are constantly subjected to intense pressure.
The researchers tested their theory by simulating the conditions of last year's Deepwater Horizon disaster with a computer model of the drill riser and a reconstruction of the accident. The result: The model correctly predicted both the location and type of cracks that caused the spill.
In the future, oil companies could use MIT's research—which is partially sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell—to choose more flexible piping materials that don't break under severe pressure. The technology may not prevent future oil disasters by itself, but when used in combination with other safeguards (like Intel's offshore oil rig sensors), it could at least act as a partial block against the oil industry's many drilling accidents.
[Image: Flickr user SkyTruth]