We could be waiting millions of years before the Hollywood star's ‘clean machines' wash BP's oil from the Gulf of Mexico.
A Hollywood superstar riding in to save the day? Who could resist a storyline like that? So it has come to pass with the news that the Oscar-winning actor Kevin Costner has just signed a deal to help beleaguered BP clean up its oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The oil giant has signed a letter of intent to purchase some of Costner's oil-cleaning machines, which he introduced with much fanfare to the world's media last month.
After investing $20m of his own money in an effort to develop the technology, Costner says the machines will now be dragged out into the Gulf of Mexico on barges and set to work on the oil slick as soon as possible. Here's what the machines, which are built by Ocean Therapy Solutions, are said to be able to do: The machines are taken out into the spill area via barges, where they can separate the oil and water. The machines come in different sizes, the largest of which, the V20, can clean water at a rate of 200 gallons per minute. Depending on the oil to water ratio, the machine has the ability to extract 2,000 barrels of oil a day from the Gulf. Once separation has occurred, the oil is stored in tanks. The water is then more than 99 per cent clean of crude.
Hats off to Costner and his colleagues at Ocean Therapy Solutions for investing so much money and effort in developing these machine, but before we all get too carried away by the good news let's also invest in a much-needed reality check.
The machine can clean 200 gallons of water a minute, says the manufacturer. That sounds impressive, but just how much water is there in the Gulf of Mexico? According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the volume of water in the gulf — the ninth largest body of water in the world — is 643 quadrillion gallons. We don't get to deal with quadrillions too often in our everyday lives, so let's put it another way. We're talking about 643,000,000,000,000,000 gallons of water.
So let's do the maths. Just how long would it take Costner's machine to rid the Gulf of Mexico of its oil? Well, if we accept that there are 60 minutes in an hour, 24 hours in a day, and 365 days in a year, then we arrive at the conclusion that it will take the V20 — give or take — 6.1 BILLION years to clean up the Gulf of Mexico.
Just in guess you are seeking some context: the age of the Earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years.
Ok, I accept that's being a little unfair. Not all the Gulf of Mexico has (yet) been affected by the oil spill. Let's be generous and say that only one hundredth of the volume of water in the gulf has somehow been tarnished with oil. But that's still a clean-up time of 60 million years. (Remember that the current legal limit for oily discharge from a ship is 15 parts of oil to one million parts of water — or 15 parts per million — so let's assume any concentration of oil to water worse than this is unacceptable and requires some form of cleaning.) Costner says that he will be supplying not one but 32 of his machines to BP. Again, every little helps, but we're talking about a leak that some experts now say has a flow rate as high as 2.5 million gallons of oil a day. Costner says his machine can get water 99 per cent free of crude oil. That's the equivalent of 10,000 parts per million.
No matter how you look at it, the sums just don't seem to add up. These machines appear to be a token effort at best, a distraction at worst. They might have their uses in, say, lagoons where the water is contained to some extent, but I fail to see how they can have a meaningful impact in the open sea, unless dispatched in their tens of thousands.
And that then leads to another interesting question: how much oil would you need to power them all? — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010