The human and environmental tragedy that continues to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico has important lessons for lab managers. I'll be writing an article for the December issue of "Lab Manager" on the lessons in crisis management that the situation holds for lab managers. I'd like to talk about another oil spill-related matter here.
Need for continuous product and process improvement
Resting on current laurels and not trying to improve existing products and processes can cause problems later. While the dispersant being used to treat the oil spill has been approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, there have been serious concerns raised about its environmental safety. At one point the government ordered BP to switch to a different dispersant. This never happened because no other suitable dispersant was available in sufficient quantities. (At the time this blog was written, over one million gallons of this dispersant had been used. Its use continues.)
The dispersant being sued was developed approximately twenty years ago. I don't know if its manufacturer conducted follow-up research to develop improved dispersants. However, much has happened in surfactant science since development of the current dispersant. For example, nanotechnology has resulted in the development of a single-molecular-layered material made by reacting graphite powders with strong oxidizing agents. Recently Northwestern University researchers discovered that graphene oxide behaves like a surfactant. It can be assembled in soft sheets like floating water lily pads. Will these sheets disperse crude oil? Are they durable enough to endure ocean waves and tides? What are the environmental effects? I don't know the answer to these questions. However, it seems worthwhile to determine if these grapheme oxide sheets will disperse crude oil in simulated ocean water. If so, it may be worthwhile to investigate the other questions raised here. Certainly other recently developed surfactants may also be crude oil dispersant candidates having improved environmental properties.
The blowout preventer on the Macondo well, the last line of defense against a well blowout failed to perform as required releasing oil and natural gas to the ocean. This could have been due to insufficiently powerful shear rams. These are designed to cut and seal the pipe connecting the well to the drilling rig. Cameron International, which built this blowout preventer, does offer a recently developed, more powerful one. However, at the time of the blowout, none had been sold to drilling contractors.
This illustrates another requirement. Laboratory managers and their staff members must work with their firm's sales and business personnel to convince prospective customers that new and improved products fill a real need. One of the most commercially successful and innovative products I invented illustrates this point. It substantially reduced a problem that oil companies had been living with for years. They viewed the situation as a fact of life and lived with oil production declines caused by migration of small mineral particles in the microscopic flow channels that carry oil and gas to well bores for production. These particles plug the flow channels reducing hydrocarbon production. The polymer I developed decreased the drag forces exerted by flowing fluids thereby reducing production declines.
My employer's sales effort included technical bulletins, my presenting technical papers at oil industry conferences, visiting oil company laboratories and going out to well sites to supervise the first well treatments.
When were improved, most-cost-effective oil absorbent boom designs last developed? I don't know the answer to this question. However, I am sure there are oil absorbent booms and other products being used in dealing with the oil spill that could be improved by additional R&D.