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The Brains Driving Obama’s Gulf Oil Science Team

obama gulf oil scientists

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President Obama, frustrated at slapdash efforts to stem the leaking Gulf oil, has done something remarkable: He’s pulled together a crack science team. Among its members are an H-bomb scientist and an expert in nanotech and robotics.

The President’s new effort came together very quickly last week, and we don’t yet know much about what they’re up to (other than that they’re very busy). We do know who they are though, and by digging into their individual bios, and looking at each scientist’s expertise, we may be able to guess at the sort of tech being discussed.

Alexander Slocum is a stand-out member of Obama’s A-Team (though perhaps we should call it the O-Team, for a bunch of reasons beginning with “Oh god, what an oily mess”). Slocum is a professor of mechanical engineering at M.I.T., and his bio page at M.I.T.’s MechE Web page notes he’s interested in nanotechnology, MEMs, “precision engineering; machine design,” and that’s he’s into scuba diving…all little factoids that would seem pretty relevant in the current crisis.

Perhaps even more importantly, Slocum is holder of a huge list of patents for a variety of different products, indicating that he’s an accomplished out-of-the-box thinker. These include patent 6,446,560 “Single carriage robotic monorail material transfer system,” number 6,418,774 with a group of others for “Device and a method for calibration of an industrial robot” and 6,768,331 “Wafer Level Contactor.” While the first two in this list indicate Slocum’s interest in clever robotic and automated systems, the last is a novel way to test semiconductor wafers under manufacture in chip fab plants. Like the other patents he owns, it indicates Slocum is a generalist with clever problem-solving skills. If anyone in the O-Team can design a novel mechanical solution that’ll work where BP’s dome-capping efforts have failed thus far, it would seem to be Alexander Slocum. We can guess he’s currently busy trying to work out how to seal up the leaking well, possibly with advanced robotic underwater vehicles, and also automatically mop up the already spilled oil either by using a clever mechanical system, or some fabulously clever use of nanotechnology. (Will nanotubes soak in oil, separating it from sea water?)

Next up on the team in terms of fascinating specialisms is George Cooper, a professor in civil engineering at UC-Berkeley. Among his previous work is collaboration with NASA to invent novel ways to access Martian rocks, using modified mining techniques. For example, back in 2008 he presented a paper on how a slant/horizontal drilling technique may be advantageous on Mars where digging into hillsides with a borer may reveal evidence of recent water-based activity (the vision involved a boring head propelled into the terrain using compressed gas). This sort of lateral-thinking about mining may well be why Cooper is on this team–solutions like drilling into the side of the existing leaking well using a new shaft to relieve the pressure in the oil in a more controlled (and oil-harvesting) way have been mooted already. And Cooper’s used to thinking about problems like this in “unconventional” environments, like on Mars with its mysterious geology, which tallies nicely with the unconventional situation facing the team beneath the sea off Louisiana.

Tom Hunter, President and Lab director at Sandia National Laboratories is another intriguing team member. Earlier in his career he managed nuclear weapons projects, energy management and environment projects, and he’s worked on fusion energy, reactor safety and underground nuclear weapons testing. This last expertise in sub-surface engineering is complemented by the fact Hunter once headed up Sandia’s Nuclear Waste Management and Transportation center, and led the research program into the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. In other words Hunter, as well as bring a high-flying scientist and manager, has expertise in dealing with difficult and hazardous substances beneath the earth’s surface. These are excellent credentials for solving the current problem.

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This leaves us with Richard Garwin, and Jonathan Katz–a consultant with work relating to the 1951 H-bomb program, and a physicist with expertise in how water freezes among other things. Both these guys already have links to advising the government on difficult science matters, as they’re members of the JASON group, which is a “part time defense think tank,” according to the ISGP Web site.

Bloomberg, writing about the O-Team, has noted that its efforts are cloaked in a surprising degree of secrecy. This may be for a number of reasons: It’s possible some BP trade secrets are at risk of exposure, which is worrisome in an oil-driven economy; the team may be working out of the public eye so as to keep their efforts focused on the job; and secret defense equipment may be being used to assess the situation and possibly even deal with it. In a CNN interview a BP spokesman noted “We’re using some X-ray type technology that Sandia labs has,” which is almost certainly linked to Sandia’s nuclear weapons expertise.

Or maybe, given the recurrence of the word “nuclear” in the team’s history, they’re planning on sealing the well by detonating a tactical nuclear weapon down there. Obviously this is a frivolous suggestion. But you never know, this might be the “Plan F” option Bloomberg says the team’s been tasked with inventing.

To keep up with this news follow me, Kit Eaton, on Twitter. That QR code on the left will take your smartphone to my Twitter feed too.

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About the author

I'm covering the science/tech/generally-exciting-and-innovative beat for Fast Company. Follow me on Twitter, or Google+ and you'll hear tons of interesting stuff, I promise.

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