On November 7, the Frade field oil platform, in Bacia de Campos, 350km north of Rio de Janeiro, began leaking crude oil.
[The platform is] operated by the American drilling company Chevron-Texaco. On Monday, 21 November, Chevron was fined the maximum amount allowed by IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources), $R50 million (approximately $28 million USD). The oil spill is now believed to be under control.
Looking at photos from the November spill, so eerily similar to the photos from BP's April 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico, it's clear we are still looking for energy in risky places, and largely unprepared to deal with the consequences of failure. One year after the BP spill (which workers soaked up, in large part, with straw bales), the X Prize Foundation announced winners of a million-dollar incentive to develop new tools to clean up oil spills:
And many others are looking at this problem too, including one of TED's Senior Fellows, Cesar Harada.
Harada is an inventor -- of a staggering number of kinds of things. One of them is the Open_Sailing project, a group of inventors and scientists building open-source hardware and software to explore and study the ocean.
He's been looking deeply at the principles of sailing -- where does the rudder actually need to be? How can we use wind more efficiently? -- with surprising results. Watch this video of a boat he designed with a rudder in the front:
And start at 1:29 in this video to watch a boat that is 100% rudder, with an articulated hull that moves like a snake.
Harada's current project brings together his passion for sailing, open-source design and ocean exploration with his passion for engagement.
Protei, Harada's open-source oil spill cleanup project, is a fleet of unmanned, semi-autonomous, inexpensive sailboats designed to tow a long tail of absorbent booms. It's an elegant idea: Each Protei saiboat can be remote-controlled to the edge of a spill -- then it uses its sail to tack against the current into the path of oil being blown downwind. The articulated hull sweeps efficiently across the spill, dragging 20 meters of boom behind it.
As Harada writes on his Kickstarter page (the project is fully funded):
Current oil spill skimming technology was able to collect only 3% of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The health of remediation workers was compromised by exposure to cancerous toxic chemicals, skimming boats themselves contributed to pollution and were expensive to power, operations were constrained by daily weather conditions and were limited by proximity to the coast. In contrast, Protei aims to be: unmanned, unrestrained by human biological needs; green and affordable; self-righting and therefore operable even in hurricane conditions; semi-autonomous, so that far offshore, many Protei would be able to intelligently and continuously swarm.
The Protei team unveiled its most recent prototype, 5.1 (nicknamed "Alien") in Rotterdam in September. It combines an articulated hull and a lightweight inflatable body; it's hurricane-resistant, unsinkable, unbreakable. Watch this video to see the latest version:
And last Saturday, Harada's collaborator Kasia Molga presented the Protei project in Brazil. As she wrote to my team in an email:
After the presentation, someone came to me to ask whether it would be possible for us to come to Campos Basin and work with people over there -- help them to investigate spills and help them to set the infrastructure for Protei. Apparently (I am paraphrasing) the problem with biodiversity and how it affects local communities is very much unreported. Campos residents are struggling, as obviously the latest Chevron spill is not the only one. Indeed, while spending some time today looking on the internet for more information about Campos Basin villages and people, I haven't found much.
There is also another problem: According to news which were revealed in Brazil, confirming a lot of what other people said to me, Chevron was drilling deeper than it was allowed. One of the problems why they couldn't stop the spill is that they couldn't manage the pressure so deep in the water (when the spill escaped a plug). They even didn't have a right equipment (ROV) to go deep enough to check the spill, and the Brazilian Petrobras had to lent them some equipment in order to do that. Chevron have started cleaning 2 weeks after the beginning of the leak by skimming, which apparently hasn't been very effective either.
There have already been noticed changes in the amount of fish and impact on local fisherman businesses. That is obviously not only from the last spill. The problem has impacted local communities for a little longer -- but -- as I mentioned before -- it is not really reported and surely not broadcasted.
In contrast to the slow response and secrecy reported after this spill, Harada and his team are inspired by curiosity and openness. Their work is nimble and responsive, and powered by crowds. Harada is showing a new way all of us can take responsibility for risks.
The open-source Protei project is free to be reproduced and modified by anyone. To learn more, visit www.protei.org. Harada can be followed on Facebook here.