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06-22-2006

Clarkson Professor Helps Develop and Integrate Deepwater Blowout Model for Offshore Oil Spills and Gas Leaks

Clarkson University Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering Poojitha Yapa has been featured in the University of New Hampshire's Coastal Response Research Center's 2005 Annual Report for his extensive research on and development of the Clarkson Deepwater Oil and Gas (CDOG) Blowout Model and its integration with the existing NOAA oil spill prediction software, known as GNOME (General NOAA Oil Modeling Environment).

"Time is the enemy when combating an accidental oil or gas release, especially when the leak takes place in water a half-mile deep or more," explains Yapa. Knowing where the spill will surface so you can have clean-up crews in place can alleviate some of the environmental impact and help quicken the cleanup process. Yapa's model can also predict if dangerous levels of gas will surface, helping to provide time for authorities to evacuate people should the gas pose a danger.

As exploration goes ever deeper into the world's oceans to satisfy our global thirst for energy, the production of oil and gas from extremely deep wells is increasing dramatically. Yet, until new developments occurred in recent years, oil companies and governments had no way of knowing what happens to gas or oil if accidentally released at extreme depths of 2,500 feet or more. Predicting how the oil would spread and where slicks would surface was pretty much guesswork. Variables like the chemical composition of oil and gas, ocean currents, deepwater pressure, and temperature influence the thermodynamic and hydrodynamic laws that govern the oil and gas spills as they ascend from the ocean bottom to the water surface. At those depths it can take several hours, or even days for a spill to reach the surface.

It was this critical need to understand the behavior of oil and gas released at extreme depths that drove Yapa and a team of Clarkson researchers to develop a deepwater oil spill computer model. The project took over four years and was sponsored by the United States Minerals Management Service (MMS) and a deep-spill task force consortium made up of more than 20 oil companies. The computer model, named CDOG by Yapa and his team, can closely simulate the behavior of oil or gas from a well blowout in very deep water.

However, spills are not the only way oil and gas are released into the ocean. There are also natural releases through vents on the ocean floor. Although the release from a vent or deepwater well blowout may start out as a gas, it has the potential to be converted to a slush-like material known as gas hydrates. These materials are buoyant and travel upwards with the oil and gas plume. As the plume continues rising to the surface, pressure and temperature changes cause this slush to revert back to a gas, which can separate from the plume. The gases can dissolve into water. "This is a complex scientific process and neither the gas nor the oil mass may come to the surface directly above the vent that spewed it," emphasizes Yapa. "Our computer modeling will predict where it is likely to surface."

Now, almost six years since the project began, the CDOG software is nearly integrated with NOAA's GNOME software and NOAA is actively training with the software to be ready to picture what might happen if a deepwater oil release occurs. Yapa is also working with industry to analyze the environmental and economic impact of spills.

"Though the industry safety record has been very good to date," Yapa says, "as deepwater oil and gas exploration increases, our models become extremely valuable for contingency planning, ecological risk assessment, and decision making during emergencies. It is the ability to make decisions quickly during critical times that separate minor incidents from total environmental disasters."

[News directors and editors: For more information, contact Michael P. Griffin, director of News & Digital Content Services, at 315-268-6716 or mgriffin@clarkson.edu.]

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