OTC News Archive

Gulf oil spill keeping UT researchers busy

Professors spring to action in aiding in disaster

Asher Price, Austin American-Statesman
June 21, 2010

This month, Tad Patzek, a University of Texas professor who heads the Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department, appeared on Capitol Hill to brief lawmakers on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

“This tragedy has been at least 20 years in the making,” he said, pointing to cutbacks in federal and academic research in offshore technology.

Now, back in Austin, he talks all the time with his colleagues about the spill—in between calls with reporters to help elucidate the goings-on in the Gulf.

“I’m exhausted with all this sudden media attention, which I know will come and go, and I’m exhausted with my knowledge that many of the problems will not be gone tomorrow,” Patzek said of the worst oil spill in U.S. history.

The spill has been a busy time for Patzek and some of his colleagues, who have spent the past month trying to explain its causes and consequences. With the university stretching its wide technological and staffing reach, professors—sometimes working with counterparts at other universities—have been involved with predicting whether and where hurricanes would push oil ashore, calculating the flow rate of oil from the disabled wellhead and estimating how the spill will affect oxygen levels in the Gulf.

None of the professors interviewed for this story received funding from BP, the company that operated the Deepwater Horizon offshore rig that blew up in April. For most, their research grants are paid with federal money.

The university is especially well-situated to do the work because of its robust Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering Department, as well as its professors in other departments who work on environmental and marine science. Some of the work has required rapid research among scientists often accustomed to working at a more deliberate pace.

After the spill, UT researchers won an emergency allocation of one million computing hours from the National Science Foundation to run high-resolution models of the Louisiana coast to track the oil spill through the complex marshes, wetlands and channels in the area.

The million hours are divided among thousands of computer processors, many working at the same time, that are housed at UT but paid for by the federal government.

The researchers hope their work provides support for disaster responders who might need to make emergency management decisions, such as where to place booms or personnel, said Gordon Wells, a satellite remote sensing specialist at UT who also is a science and technology adviser for the Texas Division of Emergency Management.

Engineering professor Clint Dawson, who also works with supercomputers, said he had been modeling storm surges for the federal government whenever weather forecasts predicted bad storms. Now he plays a role in daily simulations about how weather could push the oil about.

Danny Reible, a professor of environmental engineering, has recommended to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers advanced sampling technologies to evaluate chronic effects of the spill and spill contaminants, and some oil spill cleanup technologies.

He’s written an editorial for the journal Environmental Science and Technology on the research gaps—the need for a better understanding of deepwater currents, the toxicity of emulsified oil, chemicals that can absorb or degrade oil and the natural processes that will be crucial to the long-term recovery from the spill—that have been identified as a result of the leaking wellhead. He said the editorial is expected to be published in early July.

Late May found UT marine scientist Zhanfei Liu on a boat off the coast of Louisiana studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon spill on oxygen levels.

During the weeklong trip, he studied how the spill was affecting an area already known as “the dead zone” for low underwater oxygen levels caused by the washing of fertilizer into the Gulf.

Liu and a colleague hypothesize that ocean bacteria will consume oil and in the process consume oxygen, which could lead to greater hypoxia, or low levels of oxygen, effectively suffocating some fish and marine creatures.

“Certainly there is a lot of concern about how the spill affects seabirds, but I don’t think many people realize how the oil spill affects oxygen levels,” he said.

Paul Bommer, a lecturer on petroleum and geosystems engineering at UT, has served on a federal flow rate technical group, which released calculations on the amount of oil spilling in the Gulf that far outstripped previous estimates provided by BP.

Using reservoir data, well logs, characteristics of the oil and other information, Bommer estimated the amount of pressure and oil starting in the reservoir of oil under the wellhead and how it would flow through the most likely conduit to the surface.

“Your expertise and experience, to say nothing of your level head, good judgment and balanced scientific assessment in time of crisis, have been invaluable to the Flow Rate Technical Team,” Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, wrote in thanking Bommer for his work on the team.

[ Statesman ]