Could seaweed stop offshore drilling accidents?

May 10, 2010


–Dr. Gunter Pauli, PhD, MBA, is an entrepreneur and founder of the ZERI Foundation (Zero Emissions Research and Initiatives). He is the author of 17 books and 36 children’s fables. His latest book The Blue Economy contains one innovation outlined in this article. —

One wonders if the oil industry will ever learn.

When in the summer of 2006 holes in pipelines forced British Petroleum to shut down a major part of its network in Alaska, oil prices shot up to record levels.

The analysis of the problem unveiled that microbial induced corrosion (MIC) contributed to a dramatic domino effect.

Microbes are known to cause corrosion. Concentrated and purified metals are easy energy sources for bacteria, which consider this as their equivalent of fast food. After the insurance paid most of the environmental clean-up costs, and consumers footed the bill for a huge premium on the market, the industry reverted to improve a model that has proven to fail.

Why does a $1 billion clean-up bill not force the oil sector to embrace a portfolio of fundamental shifts in thinking and doing? It seems an obvious opportunity to launch an aggressive search for an out-of-the-box solution and dedicate the relevant budgets that build on new modus operandi, already well founded in science.

Industry has the power to move breakthrough solutions quickly through the mazes of government approvals.

The main obstacle to fundamental shifts even in the wake of tremendous risks to the business and the environment seems to be the core business approach based on core competence.

Companies are pressed within a straitjacket known as supply chain management, with outsourcing and a continuous drive to reduce costs, especially overheads. Innovations that sit square in the supply chain logic do not have a chance, even when these are proven to work.

The fossil fuel sector operates under stress. Oil, gas and water exit together from a well and are separated out.

Seawater, fresh water and natural gas are pumped back down to help maintain the pressure to pump the hot oil to the well heads. Microbes can enter anytime. These bacteria cause corrosion, one of the main reasons of failure and one of the X-factors in maintenance.

This jeopardizes the long term viability of the oil and gas infrastructure. Microbes eat their way through nearly any layer of metal.

The typical wear and tear of metals is compounded with the chemistry of the smallest living cells on earth. The only option industry embraces is harsh chemistry and mechanical force, which also deteriorate the infrastructure.

Industry knows that bacteria cause problems. Pipes made from carbon steel can not resist the acidity released by the bugs. The installation of weldable chromium, nickel, copper and rare earth metals offers alloys of steel that resist the corrosion caused by colonies of bacteria, known as biofilms.

Unfortunately, these corrosion-proof pipelines are simply too expensive. The decision to stay with the existing installations, especially those that have already been sunk into the ocean bed or in delicate tundra and rain forest, force the industry to shut down operations regularly and flush the system with bactericides.

If seaweeds would have chosen the same chemical annihilation technique as industry applies, then the seaweeds would never have survived.

Bacteria simply outnumber all other life on earth, and since they do not have a nucleus with DNA, they mutate whenever under stress. Bacteria colonize, sense a quorum, and take over their hosts even in the presence of killing chemistry.

Instead, some seaweeds reverted to a smarter tactic: render the bacteria deaf. While this sounds simple, it works.

Bacteria communicate through small molecules and the seaweeds successfully developed one of their own – known as the furanone – that blocks the receptor of the bacterial cells.

Since the individual bacteria cannot “hear or see” each other, they cannot create a biofilm. This effectively blocks the creation of biofilm, that stops all coordinated activities, including corrosion.

The Quorum Sensing Inhibitor Chemistry (QSIC) was only discovered two decades ago. It has been well described by Professors Peter Steinberg (USA) and Staffan Kjelleberg (Sweden) both academics at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney (Australia).

QSIC has proven its effectiveness against a wide spectrum of bugs and even fungi. The oil industry has been exposed to these findings. Now that a new big clean-up job is required dealing with 5,000 gallons a day dispersed into the Gulf of Mexico, time has come to become innovative with the mess and go beyond the burn, chemically disperse and clean-up the beaches approach.

Time has come to reflect on the root causes of these disasters and accept that corrosion and bacteria are a fact of life. Society does not need an antagonistic approach to the errors of the past, and the unintended consequences of today. Society needs an industry with an open mind that searches for dramatic shifts in the business model, which go beyond the framework defined by supply chain management.

This is the core of the proposal of The Blue Economy. If we are prepared to embrace hundreds of fundamental innovations, we can design business models that respond to the basic needs, and uses what we have, including these marvelous solutions that ecosystems provide.

The survival of the Delicea pulchra against the onslaught of bacteria could be a starting point in this debate for the oil and gas industry.


Photo shows pelicans sitting on pilings along the Dauphin Island Parkway, Alabama May 5, 2010. REUTERS/Brian Snyder


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“Bacteria simply outnumber all other life on earth, and since they do not have a nucleus with DNA, they mutate whenever under stress.”

Here’s some advice: if you want to sound like know something about what you’re talking about, then know what you’re talking about.

Bacteria do have a nucleus with DNA. Ask any 9th grade biology student.

Posted by hwman | Report as abusive

In my amazement I actually misspoke myself. Haha.

Bacteria do not have a nucleus but they do have DNA still.

Posted by hwman | Report as abusive

Well, if you want to comment anything, you have to be sure what you are about to say. So you will not have mistakes like this.

Posted by Mauricio_Uribe | Report as abusive

Finally someone who doesn’t only critisizes, but comes with solutions as well. He is the kind of positive mind we need in these times! I’m really looking forward to reading his book The Blue Economy, wondering about all the other nature inspired solutions Prof. Pauli is proposing.

Posted by cop | Report as abusive