Why Aren't BP and Elected Officials Listening to this High-Pressure Physicist?

06/18/2010 10:42 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dr. Michael Pravica is a physics professor at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and he has been appealing to elected officials and BP to hear his idea for what may be the best temporary solution to stop the gushing oil.

His expertise is in high-pressure physics, which is what he got his Harvard Ph.D in. He studies hydrocarbons -- constituents of oil -- under extreme conditions. So far, only the local NBC affiliate has taken an interest and tried to get the word to BP.

From the very beginning of the crisis, Dr. Pravica suspected what BP last week finally admitted -- that there is damage beneath the sea floor.

In a letter to interested parties, Dr. Pravica wrote:

From my point of view, we are not even close to solving this problem because BP doesn't understand the basic physics of what's going on in the world of very high pressures and/or still wants to save their wellhead. It's very difficult when you know exactly where BP is going wrong but feel powerless to stop it.

In the first of two youtube videos, the UNLV professor demonstrates the unsuccessful methods that BP has tried so far, and shows why they don't work. He also expresses his concerns that so far BP has been looking for a fix that preserves the blowout preventer and so all the solutions have prioritized that goal rather than the goal of stopping the flow as quickly as possible. He explains that the oil pressure is 17,000 pounds per square inch and says, "I don't know of any traditional valves that can seal 17,000 psi." At this point, he explains, the situation calls for a brute-force solution, which he demonstrates in the second video.

BP has all the more reason to try this approach, given that the blowout preventer (BOP) was most likely damaged and its valves mechanically compromised during the explosion when the whole platform fell into the Gulf and the pipes cracked just above the BOP. In other words, there's no guarantee that the device is still any good anyway. Additionally, he says, "we're dealing with higher pressures than would normally be used in these kinds of fittings, because we've had a catastrophic failure of all the protection apparatus."

His solution? Deform the pipe. The easiest way is through brute force such as taking a series of concrete slabs that would crush the BOP, sealing the leak imperfectly. "You will deform all the material around this hole in the earth and you will form a seal," he explains.

Because the BOP is four storeys tall and so there may be doubts about the possibility of crushing it (though explosives could take care of that), another possibility -- one that would even maintain the integrity of the BOP, is this: Drop a slab of concrete equipped with a concrete stopper -- perhaps laden with copper or lead around it -- on the pipe above the BOP. This "goes in and seals and deforms, squishing all the material. Then you put flat concrete slabs until you seal it. It wouldn't be a perfect seal, but it would severely slow this down until a better solution can be found.

"You would be classically deforming this hole in the ground by crushing it -- either crushing the BOP or blowing it out of the way or dropping slabs onto it until we can find a permanent solution."

In his desperate attempt to bring attention to his idea, Dr. Pravica has made a youtube appeal stating:

I am asking that our political leaders set up a clearing house for ideas and information to be exchanged freely between scholars who might be interested in this problem. I am worried that BP has not been forthright and honest in all of the discussions and data that is released about the Gulf oil incident, and I feel it's imperative at the moment that we share data so that we can jointly try to find solutions, because I think now this crisis is so disastrous that it's beyond the scope of BP's abilities to solve it. I ask my fellow Americans to encourage our elected officials to begin to take over this project and stop this disaster in the Gulf because life is truly hanging in the balance.

In a related letter to the Las Vegas Sun responding to a reprinted New York Times article, Dr. Pravic wrote:

...I do not understand why BP has been adding the dispersing chemicals to the Gulf of Mexico, which may actually make matters worse.

The essence here is that if we allow the lighter oil to rise to the surface, it is easier to collect/separate and/or burn away than when dispersed in the sea. Adding dispersants/detergents alters the biochemical balance in the Gulf by contaminating it with more chemicals (that may harm life) on top of the toxic oil and, worse yet, may starve the Gulf waters of oxygen as certain bacteria can apparently metabolize/degrade the oil but need oxygen to do so.

Can the bacteria do this successfully at all depths, as not all life can function properly, let alone exist, at 160 atmospheres of pressure and near freezing temperatures on the floor? Adding dispersants to surround oil droplets may also frustrate the ability of the oil to rise to the surface, making it very difficult to remove.

It seems to me the primary reason for using the dispersant is to reduce the visible and dramatic effect of this public relations nightmare for BP and not to truly clean this mess.

Is anyone listening?