Inventor Takes Sucking Tip From Whales To Clean Oil

An oil skimming boat returns to port after inclement weather forced them to abandoned the effort to clean up oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on July 2, 2010 in Terrebonne Bay, Louisiana.
An oil skimming boat returns to port after inclement weather forced them to abandoned the effort to clean up oil from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on July 2, 2010 in Terrebonne Bay, Louisiana. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Asian ship mogul Nobu Su has invented a ship that would suck in oily water and separate oil from the water, much like a whale sucks in plankton. The giant oil skimmer, called "A Whale," is almost 400 yards long. Though the Coast Guard has its concerns, the agency let the ship into the Gulf for a trial run early Friday morning.

Kevin Costner is not the only one who supposedly has some kind of oil-water separating device to use on the spill. Another never-before-tested separating system is in the hull of an oil skimmer. Early Friday morning, the giant whale of a ship was finally given Coast Guard clearance to ease out of the Mississippi and into the Gulf for a trial run.

BP has received so many suggestions, it's created a hotline to collect them. More than 100,000 have poured in, though none are as large as this. The vessel is some 350 yards in length and about 100 yards wide. The name of the huge oil skimmer makes perfect sense: It's called "A Whale."

Hurricane Alex put a stop to most oil skimming operations in the Gulf of Mexico this week. The small fishing and shrimp boats BP has hired to scoop oil from the water -- one bucket at a time -- can't work in rough seas. Now this bigger ship has arrived in the Gulf, and it can skim oil hundreds of times faster. But the Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency have some concerns.

Frank Maisano has spent two days ferrying media out to the giant ship, which sits idle on the Mississippi River. He's with a PR firm the ship's owner hired to unleash a torrent of publicity and help cut through red tape that could keep A Whale beached.

The tricked-out supertanker is the wild brainstorm of an Asian shipping mogul named Nobu Su, who happens to be reclusive. He sent one of his managers, Bob Grantham, to tell the press how the idea came about.

"He was sort of sitting down watching details of the spill and realized it needed something else, not just the usual skimmer-type ideas. And he immediately thought of this concept of a whale sucking in plankton and expelling it, and that's truly where the idea came from," Grantham says.

So, he ordered the company's newest supertanker to a port in Portugal where crews hacked huge slits in the bow near the waterline.

The ship is just a giant, floating decanter. The captain will wiggle the ship's nose very slowly and water will rush through the slats into a series of tanks. As the oil rises to the top, it'll be siphoned off and the water goes back into the Gulf -- still oily, but less so.

That's one of the hang-ups: Environmental laws say the water needs to be virtually oil-free, so the ship would need a government waiver. Critics of the oil cleanup effort argue that a large-scale disaster is no time to cling to such rules. To some extent, many environmentalists agree. David Pettit of the Natural Resources Defense Council is among them.

"You're looking at the lesser of two evils. If it were up to me, I would let them do that -- or at least let them try it. Cause let's face it, nothing that BP or the Coast Guard have thought up is doing much good out there," Pettit says.

The ship's 30-man crew is eager for a crack at the oil slick, says Chief Engineer Ashish Ghosh.

"We're frustrated," Ghosh says. "We have come all the way to U.S.A. We just want to go in the oil field and start our job."

BP and the Coast Guard still have concerns about the ship. For one thing, will it work? No one has ever tried to use a supertanker as an oil skimmer. Also, can it maneuver safely in the crowded area near the leaking well? Thursday, Adm. Thad Allen offered some cautious encouragement.

"The owners made an offer to bring it down at their expense and have it operate in the Gulf area to see if it could be effective. We're anxious to find out how effective it will be," Allen said.

The ship's owners have already spent millions to slice into a perfectly good supertanker without even the promise of being paid by BP. But Grantham says they're confident it'll work:

"Mr. Su's a very decisive man." Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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