I Can Plug Oil Leak, Says NY Genius
BP's engineers can't stop the gushing oil spill, but a young genius from Long Island says she found the solution in less time than it takes most people to finish a crossword puzzle. Since the "top kill," "junk shot" and "top hat" techniques failed to end the environmental nightmare, Alia Sabur -- who started her engineering Ph.D. at age 14 -- is pushing for a more radical idea. The Northport native, who started reading before she could walk and who at 18 broke a 300-year-old record to become the youngest-ever college professor, proposes surrounding a pipe with deflated automobile tires, inserting it into the leaking riser, and then inflating the wheels to form a seal. She calls the plan the "seabed retread." "It's not completely out there, considering that tires are used for everything and they're expected to withstand a lot," Sabur, 21, told The Post. The idea came to her while watching television reports of the failed attempts to plug the hole last week, she said. And she had it all worked out in a just a few minutes, sketching it out on paper. "I can't believe that at this point, with all our technology, that something like this can happen and devastate an entire area," she said. "Even at the smallest estimate, it's still a lot of oil." Since BP's Deepwater Horizon rig exploded on April 20, more than 40 million gallons of crude have spilled into the Gulf. Sabur, who is finishing her doctorate in engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia, said it frustrated her that none of BP's solutions seemed to have any success. The oil company has tried to drop containment domes over the leaks, but one missed its mark and the other got clogged with an icy mix of methane gas and water. It has also tried pumping mud, golf balls, tire scraps and other objects into the well to stop the flow.
Alia Sabur"I figured experts would know more about it than I did but their ideas didn't work," she said. "So I started thinking about it." The prodigy, who has received awards and fellowships from NASA and the Department of Defense, decided to take a different tack from BP's latest strategy, the "lower marine riser package," in which the riser pipe is cut and a housing is placed over it to collect the oil. "This was a thought experiment," she said. "They tried covering it and now they're trying to block it, and it seems they are trying things that go on it or around it. "I started thinking of something that goes inside it." The tires might not be able to fully inflate inside the pipe, but the resulting seal would be able to stem the flow of oil and redirect it into a new pipe, she said. A valve in the pipe could be closed to block the oil or open to allow it to flow, presumably to a ship on the surface. Sabur admitted that she's not certain the inflated tires would be enough to hold the new pipe in place. "But if it works, then it might be possible to then put something on top of it -- to brace the inserted pipe -- to do something more permanent," she said. "Obviously, I hope that what they're doing now works. It's just absolutely terrible." Even if her idea fails to stave off further catastrophe, Sabur has an amazing history. At the age of 2, she started reading novels, and at 11 she played the clarinet with the Rockland Symphony Orchestra. She hasn't yet been able to get her idea to BP, but thinks they should consider it if other efforts fail.