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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

Today we look at the Exxon Valdez oil spill.  For decades scientists could not find a way to extract the oil/water mixture from the icy waters of Prince William Sound in Alaska. But when the question was changed, a two-decade old problem was solved within weeks.

Be sure to watch the previous videos!

Transcription:

In the last video, I talked about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion.

Today, I want to talk about a different oil spill. One from 1989. This is the Exxon Valdez oil spill. For those of you remember, 10.8 million gallons of oil seeped into the icy waters of Prince William Sound in Alaska. Clean-up crews tried everything possible to try to extract the oil water mixture. Unfortunately, because the oil water mixture was dense and it was in cold temperatures, 32 degrees, every time they try to extract the oil water mixture, it would freeze. For two decades, they had experts in oil trying to solve the problem of how do we prevent an oil water mixture from freezing, and they got nowhere.

Ultimately, in 2007, a non-profit called the Oil Spill Recovery Institute took a stab at it. What they realized is maybe the problem has nothing to do with oil. Maybe it has nothing specifically to do with temperature. Maybe it’s a common issue in fluid dynamics called viscous shearing. Without getting too technical, basically what that means is any dense liquid put under a force or acceleration, if you try to extract it, its molecules could seize up.

Given this information, they used the platform Innocentive and posted a challenge, “How do we prevent viscous shearing in a dense liquid?” Over the course of six weeks, not two decades but over the course of six weeks, they found a solution.

Guess what? That solution did not come from somebody in the oil industry. The solution actually came from a guy by the name of John Davis, a chemist, who works in the construction industry. And in particular he worked with wet cement. If the chute of the cement truck doesn’t have the right cement-to-water mixture, the molecules could “freeze up.” He created a device that would sit on top of a cement chute and would vibrate the molecules to prevent this seizing.

John took his $20,000 prize, flew to Alaska, took his device, tweaked it, and doing that, he solved a two-decade old problem.

When they try to solve the problem, “How do we prevent oil water mixture from freezing?” they didn’t get a solution. But when they changed to something different, they got a fundamentally different solution in a very rapid time.

In the next installment, I will talk about the Goldilocks principle as a means of framing better questions.

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