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    Posted June 5, 2010 by
    San Jose, California
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    Oil disaster views and solutions

    Oil Pipe Leak Termination with Inflatable Balloon Technique


    Oil Pipe Leak Termination with Inflatable Balloon Technique

    Ralph L. Smathers, MD

    San Jose, CA


    The underwater oil pipe leakage video we all have seen, reminds me of a torn artery.  In Radiology, arteries are blocked off with “balloon catheters” temporarily to open up diseased segments.  I see no obvious reason this technology cannot be used to block the oil pipe.  Following the shutdown of oil flow by the balloon, cementing materials could be added to the pipe to permanently seal it. 

    A stiff cable wire with a smooth tip is introduced into the pipe.  It is used as a guide wire to allow a long, flexible, plastic tube or guiding catheter to be inserted and advanced.  The tip of the catheter is directed or controlled by the robotic operator. It can be gently advanced with rotation of the end of the catheter.  The tip of the balloon catheter is then positioned deep enough into the pipe so it is not easily dislodged. 

    A deflated cylindrical balloon is located on the shaft of the catheter. It is inflated by a connectable hydraulic pump.  Sea water can be used to inflate the balloon. The balloon catheter may have locator devices like GPS markers attached to give its location within the pipe and to check its advance.  Inflation could be increased up to pressures as needed depending upon the structural limits of the balloon material when inflated. 

    There are many specifics I cannot specify without experiment.  Identical oil pipes can be set up quickly in test sites.  The test balloons can be placed in the pipes first and then oil or water pumped up to the estimated pressure of the leaking gulf pipe.  This will establish if the balloon design is strong enough to hold at the pressure needed.  Next the balloon is deflated but left in place allowing the fluid to gush around it at the rate of the Gulf pipe.  Next it is reinflated to see if it will work during gushing. Next it is inserted from the beginning over the guide wire into the gushing pipe in a sample run.  Then the whole procedure is done underwater by robots to establish the robotic action sequence and eliminate glitches.  Assuming suitable balloon catheters can be built large enough, strong enough, and fast enough, the testing process might only be days.   The balloon material could be similar to truck tire innertubing or like NASA used for the the Mars Rover landing balloons. The final unit is then transported to the site, sunk, and inserted. 

    Advantages:  Guide cable wire can be advanced thru gushing fluid relatively easily.  Pressure can be controlled so that the pipe is filled by the balloon but not broken.   Procedure can be repeated as needed by deflating the ballon and reinflating if needed.  Balloons can be advanced as deep into the pipe as needed up to the length of the catheter connection to the water pump.  There is no air involved and fluids are at same pressure as deep water.   Multiple attempts could be made from the same guide wire.  Failed catheters can be expelled and replaced.  Size of unit is managable esp. compared to giant metal capping “hats”.   Total weight might be only a few thousand pounds.  Entire system could be designed and prepped by a single team in one warehouse.   If, for example, the pipe is 24 inches in diameter, the guide cable could be 2 inches in diameter and the balloons on each “side” would be 11 inches wide inflated. This is similar to large truck tires. 

    I recommend US govt. and BP engineers contact angioplasty balloon manufacturer engineers immediately and brainstorm this simple option. 

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