Crowd-sourcing to Save the World: InnoCentive and the Gulf Oil Spill

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Crowd-sourcing is a very new innovation that basically takes a problem, whether it be developing a chunk of computer code or solving an environmental disaster, and throws it to the public for a solution. Though it makes the problem public, it allows anyone with the interest and the skills to get involved, which can mean hundreds or even thousands of qualified people could be working on a solution. Of course, a certain numbers of cranks and kooks may also become involved, but they are relatively easy to filter out.

InnoCentive is in the business of crowd-sourcing solutions to any number of problems. A client hires them to find the answer to a problem. Then InnoCentive posts it on their website, and solicits solutions from their members. Typically, they post a financial reward for a successful solution to the posted problem, with the amount determined by the client and the complexity of the job.

The crisis in the Gulf has prompted InnoCentive to post a new challenge: Find a way to stop the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Unlike past challenges, this challenge is not funded. It was posted because of the dire circumstances of the tragedy, and the need to find an effective and rapid solution.

So far, the news from the collective brainstorm hasn’t been very hopeful. In the opinion of many posters to the public forum, the leak cannot actually be stopped, only captured. So the best bet for the near future is to cap the pipe and divert the oil to a surface ship, and if that fails, then the only hope is to wait for the relief wells. Even at that, though, due to the anomalous high pressure in this oil field, any relief wells may well run into the same sort of problem that Deepwater Horizon did. If these relief wells fail for any reason, then the only recourse will be to wait until the oil reservoir drains of its own accord, which could take years.

However, some of the posters to the forum feel that it can be stopped, and have suggested a number of interesting methods. Some of them may even work.

One poster suggested planting explosives underground via drilled pipes, and detonate them to pinch off the access from the underground reservoir to the well head.

Other posters suggested using balloons to collect oil and bleed off gas as it escapes from the pipe. Gas would be bled off through a valve arrangement at the top, while the oil would stay within the balloon. Or else a fabric rig could channel the oil to a collection device while releasing gas.

Pulp and shredded paper have been suggested as ways of collecting the oil at sea, along with fishing nets for the tarballs.

Many posters suggested the use of oil-eating bacteria in the dispersants, though the sheer volume of the spill may be too much.

Still others have suggested using variations of the cofferdam, this time with flaps or other mechanisms to release pressure.

While most would rate the idea in the kooks and cranks column, it has been suggested that a nuclear bomb could close off the well, similar to how the Soviets closed off a flaring natural gas well in the 1960s. Under normal circumstances, the idea of detonating a nuclear weapon in the Gulf of Mexico would rightly be viewed with horror and disbelief. However, these are far from normal circumstances.

(Note: Access to the InnoCentive site requites a free registration)

  • Colin Dunn

    Colin Dunn was born and raised in Northern Alberta. Growing up in the boreal forest gave him an appreciation for nature, an appreciation that was enhanced by the works of his artist mother, Svala Dunn, who captured the landscapes and wildlife of the north in her oils and watercolors. He holds a Degree in Geography from the University of Alberta, with a concentration in Urban Studies. He has since found career in information technology, but still pursues his first interests in geography and the environment. He lives and works in southern Vancouver Island, with his wife and three children.

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