Balls of steel: A scientists proposes dropping steel balls into well to stop leak

in seven months. In 1994 he invented a temporary bridge made from railroad flatbed cars that was used a year later to repair a section of an interstate highway in California that floods had destroyed. As a Livermore scientist in the 1960s, Wattenburg developed a means to monitor the size of underground nuclear explosions from afar.

Wattenburg, who also hosts a radio talk show and is not afraid to recount his own accomplishments, is well connected. He forwarded his idea to a friend who on 2 June sent it directly to Chu. Chu e-mailed back to say DOE had considered such a scheme but that there were complications.

Wattenberg says he would like to know what the complications are. “All I’m looking for is proof that it won’t work.”

Cho writes that when it comes to possible complications, petroleum engineers can name a few major ones. For example, oil and gas are not rushing up the well’s central pipe, or “production casing,” which has a diameter of 25 centimeters. Rather, they are flowing through the space between that pipe and the larger outer casing, which has a diameter of 38 centimeters. Balls fed in through the BOP can take either route, notes Julius Langlinais, a petroleum engineer retired from Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. So given the chance, they will take the path of least resistance and go down the central pipe where there is not any flow, he says. “They would not fall where it’s going to make any difference,” Langlinais predicts.

Simply pumping the balls into the well would also be difficult, Langlinais says, because those heavy enough to fall through the gushing oil would also be heavy enough to fall out of any slurry used to pump them. Finally, Langlinais says that balls that fall all the way down the well will not plug it because the well can hold an essentially limitless number of them.

Wattenburg dismisses all these points. Balls that go all the way down the center of the well would eventually get blown into the outer region where they would work their magic, he says. He says Langlinais simply does not understand what different types of pumps can do. “I think I can give you evidence that these [objections] are just not relevant,” Wattenburg says.

Perhaps most important is Wattenburg’s claim that his experiment cannot make matters any worse. This is not necessarily so, says Martin Chenevert, a petroleum engineer at the University of Texas, Austin. “Once you get these steel balls in there, you’ll never get them out,” he says. This could greatly complicate future efforts to drive cement into the surrounding earth to help seal the well, he says.