Mind & Matter


Did Cutting Corners Lead to Oil Fiasco?

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As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico from BP's blown well, the finger-pointing has intensified. One target of particular scrutiny is the special concrete used to reinforce the well walls, developed by oil-service company Halliburton. The concrete utilizes a nitrogen-based, foamed cement that is more resilient than conventional concrete, yet more difficult to pour.

According to a white paper chronicling geothermal well applications, the special foamed mixture takes advantage of the large amount of nitrogen pumped into well slurry, thus reducing the amount of material that would otherwise be required. The new concrete also exhibits higher ductility, and is therefore more stable (in theory) in volatile marine-bed applications. Most importantly, the new concrete mixture saves money. Halliburton reports that only one pour is required with foamed cement, compared with multiple pours required with conventional concrete.

The exact cause of the well failure remains uncertain. However, if the concrete is at fault, one must ponder the vast environmental and economic destruction reaped by a contractor focused on cutting costs, and in a remote site far from public scrutiny. (It would be difficult to imagine a builder taking similar risks with a new concrete mix in a skyscraper, for example.)




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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.