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Grease: On a Potential Solution to Plug the Gulf of Mexico Oil Leak

By John I. Koivula


This article describes a possible solution for stopping the major oil/gas leak in the Gulf of Mexico using gallium.


Possible Solution to Stop the Deep Water Oil Leak at its Source

Below, in short form is a solution for stopping the major oil/gas leak in the Gulf of Mexico right at its source on the sea floor. Thank you for taking your time to read and consider this idea.

The method I am proposing is to flood or inject the leaking pipe(s) and/or damaged blowout preventer with liquefied elemental gallium metal directly through the leaking containment cap (which is currently in place). The gallium would forcibly replace (displace) all of the oil and seawater in the interior of this damaged upper structure, and then almost immediately crystallize and harden in any and all openings that were originally escape routes for the pressurized petroleum. 

Enter Gallium

Gallium is a very unusual element that will melt in your hand and is non-toxic. So it becomes molten and behaves as a liquid at a very low temperature, essentially room temperature (approx. 85°F or 29°C). You can hold molten gallium in your hand, pour it from your hand onto a cool surface, and watch it quickly solidify or crystallize. It also has one of the longest liquid ranges of any metallic element (boiling at about 2175°C). This makes it easy to control in the liquid state so it can be easily transported, and it also makes a very durable solid metal solder.

With a specific gravity of 5.9 elemental gallium is also much denser than saltwater or oil (or barite-based drillers mud, which is commonly used to stop oil leaks).

And, very importantly, when gallium solidifies from the liquid state it gains volume, becomes less dense, and expands slightly (gains about 3% in volume). This means that it will form very tight seals in and on almost anything. This also means that it can be injected as a warm non-toxic liquid metal, and when it cools below 85°F or 29°C it solidifies and forms a very tight and durable plug. As you know, very few compounds or elements in nature have the characteristic of becoming less dense and expanding in volume when they solidify (one other example is thankfully water/ice).

Gallium has the advantage of solidifying and expanding at conditions that currently prevail at the Deep Horizon blow-out site. The pressure at that depth would lower the freezing point by only about 2°C if gallium behaves anything like water. That would still mean you could easily deliver molten gallium to the site and have it freeze on contact with the water at ~18°C, well below the ~27 to 29°C freezing point of gallium, which gives a great amount of liquid-to-solid temperature working range.

The Deep Horizon leak

Apparently one of the main reasons the Deep Horizon leak is so challenging is because the gusher wants to blow everything away before you can get it in place. Since they already tried to inject the blow-out with golf balls and other debris of low density (they called it a junk shot), I know it is possible to inject the problem area at that 5000 foot depth. Another attempt to plug the leak employed barite-based drilling mud (specific gravity of 3.9) that they tried to get the well to accept. Because of the fast flow of the raw petroleum out of the damaged well, and because it takes time for such a slurry to set-up, the drilling mud slurry was just blown back out.

Since it is also very cold at that depth in the ocean, if liquefied gallium was used as a sealant, injected through the containment cap (instead of golf balls or slow-setting drilling mud) a successful plug would be formed since (as its elemental behavior and density suggests) the gallium would flow along the inner walls of the damaged upper structure and harden on them, thinning the inner diameter of the pipes preventer-and-containment cap and choking off the flow of oil.

The density of the gallium itself would also help facilitate this operation since gravity would be working in favor of such an effort and the gallium would be much denser that the saline ocean water or the oil, and as a dense liquid it would be less likely to be pushed aside or “bullied” by the oil, gas, and saline brine, which has been a problem in the immediate past.

Gallium in liquid form could even be mixed with finely powdered lead, lead sulfide (the mineral galena), or even depleted uranium (which, contrary to what many people think, is virtually non-radioactive). Any of these solids would serve as a carrying agent, creating a colloidal mixture with an even higher specific gravity than pure elemental gallium. This would also dramatically increase the overall volume of the liquefied gallium, making less gallium be needed to do the job.

Accurate positioning of the gallium could also be assisted during the rapid solidification process by creating a strong magnetic field around the upper damaged structures. Then a powder of neodymium- or iron-based magnets could be mixed into the liquid gallium which would also aid in positioning the gallium along the inner walls of the damaged structures while it hardened (as well as adding to the apparent specific gravity).  

I have also thought of two plausible hydraulically-powered or compressed gas, piston-driven delivery or injection systems for the gallium. While I don’t have detailed schematics of the actual blowout or the present condition of the existing hard structures, I do know the basics, that there are two vertical pipes (one going to the surface and the other into the seafloor) with a damaged blowout preventer between them, and a poorly fitting containment cap on the top. I feel that this structure, regardless of present damage could be successfully injected and plugged with liquefied gallium.

Potential drawback

The major drawback I can see is the availability of elemental gallium worldwide. Aside from a few minor industrial applications (electronics, lasers, semiconductors, etc), it is generally regarded as a curiosity and not as a strategic material. Because of this and its general rarity as an element, there might not be enough gallium available for the job.

In closing

I know the above idea is entirely theoretical, but it seems that we need to "think outside the box" here, since we have never faced this type of disaster before, and, even after the current problem is dealt with, will likely face it again.

Thank you for taking your time to read and evaluate this idea. If any reader believes this approach might have some merit, please pass it along to anyone you feel might be able to help. I can be reached at work (760-603-4569), home (760-734-3812), or on my cell phone (760-822-8710).



About the author

  • John I. Koivula is one of the world's most famous gemologists and photomicrographers. Author of several books, he was also the scientific advisor to the famous MacGyver television series.



Views expressed in this article are the author's opinions alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of any organization that employs him. Those organizations bear no responsibility and assume no liability for content on this website, nor are they liable for mistakes or omissions.


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Posted 13 July, 2010; last updated 15 July, 2010