PROFESSOR'S RESPONSE TO OIL SPILL LEADS TO NEW RESEARCH COMMUNITY
As a mechanical engineering professor in the Birck Nanotechnology Center, Steve Wereley has devoted his career to studying gold chips, red blood cells and other particles too tiny to view with the naked eye. All that changed when a very big problem landed in his inbox last May.
NPR science correspondent Richard Harris was looking for an expert to approximate the amount of oil that had been gushing into the Gulf of Mexico since the April 20 Deepwater Horizon blowout. Since Wereley had co-written a textbook on particle image velocimetry, a method of obtaining fluid measurements, Harris asked him to review a 30-second clip.
Wereley first created freeze-frame shots of the video to track movement over time, then, after calculating the trigonometric formula on paper, ran a computer analysis for verification. He estimated the flow at an average of 70,000 barrels a day — more than 10 times what BP had been claiming.
Within a few weeks, Wereley had been quoted in more than 800 media outlets, had testified before Congress, and had joined the National Incident Command’s Flow Rate Technical Group, charged with providing official numbers to the U.S. government.
Once the leak was capped and more precise measurements could be taken, the group announced that initially 62,000 barrels of oil had been spilling daily, tapering to 53,000 by the time the valves were turned off. Remarkably, those numbers were within the range of Wereley’s initial estimates, even though the original video he analyzed was short and low-quality.
Since that incident, Wereley, who received a U.S. Geological Survey Director’s Award for his work, has been leading the newly created Oil Spill Research Community to examine how faculty expertise at Purdue can be used to prevent another similar accident in the future. Brown bag luncheons, seminars and courses are all part of the community, along with www.oilspillHUB.org, a new Web site featuring more than 30,000 hours of underwater videos of the failed oil drill platform.
“Researchers can use tools we are developing, such as photogrammetry tools, to learn much more about what happened and what we could do to stop it if this were to occur again,” says Steve Wereley, mechanical engineering professor and lead researcher of the site. Eventually, the site will connect to Facebook and Twitter and will allow viewing on mobile devices.
The Center for the Environment is synergizing relationships between faculty from many disciplines, industry, the public
and the government to respond to environmental challenges. Contact us at www.purdue.edu/dp/environment.