Oil Leak Could Transform Repairmen Into Superheroes

For the first time in our nation's history, our hopes and dreams and economic fate rest, not on a warrior or a politician or an astronaut, but on a team of repairmen.

The effort to seal the ruptured oil well in the Gulf is the grandest and highest-profile repair job since the Apollo 13 duct-tape fix. It is requiring a vast effort, leveraging all the ships and equipment and manpower that the most powerful companies and nations on earth can bring to bear.

It would be thrilling if the consequences of failure were not so dire.

This is mechanical hacking at the grandest scale, with unprecedented stakes.

The oil slick is readily visible from space, a great black smear of poison destroying coastal ecosystems and the livelihoods that rely on them. The unslakable energy thirst of every man and woman that uses oil (myself included) has brought us toe-to-toe with a demon of the deep.

Now we must face the difficulties of grappling with oil under 600 atmospheres of pressure, a mile beneath the ocean surface. Six hundred atmospheres is almost 9,000 psi - that's three times the pressure of a full scuba tank. It's hard to imagine a geyser of oil erupting from the ground with that much force.

I first realized the incredible pressures at work when the initial containment dome was forcibly tossed out of the stream of oil. Imagine how much force it would take to blow a 98-ton containment cap (the result of weeks of round-the-clock fabrication effort) sideways out of the path of the oil!

The news this week is encouraging: BP's elite team has successfully installed a cap over the well. This is not a guaranteed solution, and the many variables involved require more testing. Best-case scenario: They gradually close the vents at the top of the cap, permanently sealing the well. Worst case: The increased pressure ruptures the weakened well casing, setting the recovery effort back to square one.

I am cautiously optimistic that the current cap will hold, and hopeful that in the coming months BP will implement a permanent solution.

Whatever the ultimate solution is, the men and women who finally do fix the ruptured well should be regarded as national heroes.

These repair crews work for BP and their subcontractors, the same monolithic corporations that are the subject of so much media ire. But the act that they are performing, fixing the unwitting product of our global hubris, is pure heroism. The amount of precision power required to maintain a drilling rig in position in rough seas a mile above a bore-hole is absolutely incredible. (The dynamically-positioned Deepwater Horizon had eight full 360-degree azimuth thrusters capable of a combined 59,000 horsepower.) The techniques they are using are absolutely fascinating, employing cutting-edge manufacturing, deep-sea exploration tools and extraordinary ocean-going vessels that are the culmination of thousands of years of man-learning from a continual war with the sea.

Any mechanic who has had to fabricate a tool to access a hard-to-reach part, or manufacture a custom component to repair old equipment, understands exactly what BP's team is doing. This is mechanical hacking at the grandest scale, with unprecedented stakes. The world is watching the best-equipped, best-educated, most highly motivated repair crew that has ever existed perform brainstorming and problem-solving in real-time.

The various fixes attempted so far are clearly hacks, and have involved repair techs operating submersible robots attempting a variety of caps, redirects and clogs. McGyver would be proud of anything called a junk shot (although I suspect many plumbers would not).

This is the apex of the American tradition: technical mastery in building and maintaining the best infrastructure in the world.

Repair used to be a noble profession. Tinkering with cars was once an esteemed American pastime, and the best mechanics were extremely well-regarded. Our current obsession with continually replacing our things with the new has dramatically reduced how long we use things before disposing of them. The resulting variety of things has diluted the skills of mechanics and undermined their ability to master their craft.

This disaster, and the ongoing repair effort, should remind us that it is not enough to merely build more and better things. We must also plan for their maintenance, repair and end of life. We need to invest in training mechanics and fostering troubleshooting skills.

There is danger in moving beyond this disaster without taking the time to recognize those providing us with the solution. Repair is critical, necessary and vital, even more so in an era when U.S. infrastructure is crumbling, weak, or out of date. When is the last time you saw CNN running headlines titled "Fix it"?

This is a watershed moment: The entire world is waiting on a single repair job.

Kyle Wiens is the co-founder of iFixit, a global community of repair technicians dedicated to teaching everyone how to fix their things.

Photo: Todd Schilla (left) and Ryan Gressett (right) co-pilot a remotely operated vehicle as a small pollution containment chamber, known as the "top hat," is lowered into the Gulf of Mexico by the motor vessel Viking Poseidon May 11, 2010. The chamber will be used in an attempt to contain an oil leak that was caused by the mobile offshore drilling unit Deepwater Horizon explosion. U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Patrick Kelley.


Oil Leak Could Transform Repairmen Into SuperheroesWired.com has been expanding the hive mind with technology, science and geek culture news since 1995.