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Lessons Burned into Memory – Minibytes #7

Blogs, Minibytes by Al Allen
Oil spill control al allen
Minibytes by Al Allen

Why is it that some lessons, often the most humbling, seem burned into memory? As I completed Blog #6 last month involving the controlled burning of oil, I was reminded of a few such humbling lessons, and decided to tell you about two of them this month. The first learning experience deals with the importance of pausing now and then to make sure that a rigorous, intense “path” of discovery is not turned into a deep “rut” from which a full range of solutions may be missed. The second learning event involves a warning that a known, reliable “path” should not be changed easily under the pressure or excitement of others to explore a less reliable shortcut.

Learning #1 (a delayed eureka moment): It had been well over 10 years into the phase of my career when I was plowing forward anxiously to develop a truly fire-resistant boom. I, and some equally pyro-oriented associates, had been trying every conceivable concept and material that might give us a suitable floating barrier to contain burning oil. Time after time, burn after burn, our brilliant ideas for booms with combinations of steel, ceramics, and high-temperature fabrics, resulted in failure. Some booms lasted a few hours in relatively small (4- to 6-ft diameter) burns; but they could not take the heat when exposed to larger burns tens of feet in diameter. These test burns usually involved diesel or crude oil fed from below water to the middle of a closed ring of fire boom, floating on fresh or salt water a few feet deep, within a metal tank. The oil would often be ignited using a highly sophisticated technique – a rag, soaked in gasoline or kerosene, positioned lightly at the end of a pole held horizontally by researcher “A”, ignited carefully by researcher “B”, and then released by “A” onto the contained oil within the ring of boom. Many intense fires and discouraging boom failures resulted for years — one so intense, that it cremated my video camera, thought to be sufficiently located a safe distance from any possible flare-up of oil leaked to the wrong side of the boom! Sorry, we are not yet to Learning #1. That was perhaps #0.2.

One day…, a day I shall not forget…, as I sadly pulled the slightly fire-resistant, crispy-critter boom from the tank, skimmed up the floating unburned oil and residue, and retrieved the igniter rag, a FLASH of INSIGHT exploded from my head!! That soggy, little, oil-stained rag had not a single fiber of its being singed or disfigured in any way!!! Why, after re-using those igniter rags multiple times, over several years of testing, had I never thought of making a fire-resistant boom out of wet rags?! Well, the rest of this story is now history. With the help of such groups as American Marine Corporation, Mid-Mountain Materials Corporation, and Elastec, we went on and found a way to make a boom the cover of which could be kept saturated from within its core with water pumped from the boom’s towing vessel. Instead of fighting the 1,500oF to 2,000oF temperatures, we could build a boom with above-water components that only needed to survive 212oF, the boiling point for water. The resulting water-cooled fire boom, built by Elastec, played a key role in the burning of well over 300,000 bbl of oil at sea during the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. I am still humbled and a bit embarrassed by the time it took to see what should have been obvious. An experience, nowhere close to that of Thomas Edison’s, however, a soggy rag became my “light bulb” that day as it brightened my spirits and continues to serve as a good reminder not to fight nature, but to work with the elements.

Learning #2 (burning toilet paper): Speaking of igniters and humbling events…, I was wrapping up a week-long training course in Nigeria several years ago, and it was a day of hands-on training involving the controlled burning of spilled oil. The sponsor (a well-known oil company) suggested that we might use a reserve pit to demonstrate the ignition of oil since there was a large accumulation of waste oil in the pit from their facilities. In class and in some small on-land demonstrations, I had covered the basic safety and operational guidelines for a number of commonly used, hand-held, oil spill igniters. I had helped develop a number of these igniters and was hoping that the class would select one of my favorites for the reserve pit. But, no, they seemed to like the unique, last-ditch approach involving a roll of toilet paper, saturated with kerosene, slid onto the end of a pole, and then ignited (recall the role of Researcher “B” in Learning #1 above).

As you’d expect, Researcher “A” (yes, appropriately with the initials, AAA) was to hold the pole horizontally during the ignition of the toilet paper roll, and then demonstrate a controlled whip of the pole overhead, releasing the burning roll of toilet paper into the air and well out a safe distance onto the oil in the pit. Unfortunately, a suitable pole could not be found that day, however, one of the students did locate what seemed to be a strong tree branch over an inch in diameter at the handle end, and about 6 to 7 feet in length. Once ready, a proper safety briefing was held, including a carefully executed dry run without toilet paper, the role of key student participants, a check of all fire protection equipment, a discussion of all things that should go according to plan, and as always precautions for what might not!

Ignition of the toilet paper went smoothly. The whipping of the branch (at least part of it) went smoothly. The end of the branch on which the burning roll of toilet paper was located broke during mid-whip, allowing it to fall to the ground within a few feet of the whipper, “A”, who skillfully attempted a rapid get-away. Having not practiced such a move on the gravel slope of a reserve pit, “A” generated a mix of applause, shock, retreat by some, and the immediate support of a few brave students. As he slipped, fell and rolled toward the pit of dome, trying to out-run (or out-roll) an approaching ball of fire, he soon managed to get to his feet, assume a confident facial expression and stride back toward his class. The roll of burning toilet paper found its intended target, gradually heated the highly weathered and emulsified waste oil nearby, and eventually resulted in a very successful burn over the entire pit. This was another great “learning” for Instructor “A”, the details of which I am certain you can imagine! When you have a solid, reliable plan, stick to it!

I have another “Learning” in mind for next month (Blog #8) that has nothing to do with burning. The topic will involve the value of good training. The lesson will help get to the bottom of things involving the use of remote technology (hints, underlined).


Al AllenAlan A. Allen has over five decades of experience as a technical advisor and field supervisor involving hundreds of oil spills around the world. Al is recognized as a leading consultant and trainer involving oil spill surveillance and spotting techniques, the application of chemical dispersants, and the containment, recovery and/or combustion of spilled oil under arctic and sub-arctic conditions.

Copyright© 2018, Al Allen. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author is prohibited.


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