Recently in Water Category

We have been diverting our attention from the collection of rising oil/gas and the diversion of the "plume" to our collector(s) to thinking about the stopping of the flow.  The government panel has finally caught up with the rest of us, including Prof. Steve Wereley of Purdue; we have been assisting in his excellent estimates that show the flow of gas/oil to be something north of 70,000 barrels/day.  The new government estimates are consistent with that when allowance for high, uncertain gas content is factored in.  As the media circus unfolds, and it becomes more possible that August and hurricanes will both arrive before the flow is stopped, we believe we have an answer and we know how to build this answer.

BP's High Risk Solution

Inserting a pipe into the BP/Horizon riser would be in the right direction to stopping oil flow.   Failing that, we fear that BP is being forced to cut all the debris away from the top of the BOP and install another BOP atop the first, with suitable transition.  Frankly, we believe that should have been done much sooner, but the risk is that to do so would actually increase oil flow.  Only a Monday morning quarterback would second-guess BP in this decision.

The Geometry is the Problem, Stupid!

For the idea of diverting the flow using the riser, the problem is that the riser is a tortuous 20 inch (i.d.) pipe with 1" walls.  Worse, the 7" production pipe is still in the riser for its whole length and well beyond.  A very small flow of oil/gas through the 7" pipe was stopped earlier by having ROVs install a block valve on the end of that pipe.  Now, the best BP has been able to do is to insert a smaller 4" line into the riser with flexible collars or diaphragms attached, but this "siphon" has produced a fraction of the leaking oil/gas, probably a bigger share of gas than of the noxious oil.  Simple hydraulics shows that the siphon is very limited because it cannot seal against the wall of the riser, with our pesky 7" pipe in the way.  Where is Kafka when we need him?


Back at the top of the BOP, the riser is twisted so badly near where it sits on top of the BOP that several leaks occurred (it looks like as many as 4, now).  This part of the riser is weakened.  If we succeeded in inserting a new pipe tightly into the "top" end of the riser, we would be concerned that these cracks would widen under any increase in differential pressure.  Even the use of somewhat abrasive drilling mud in the "top kill" runs the risk of widening these cracks and increasing the rate of leakage.  Our idea has that covered.

But the best bet of stopping flow before August seems to us to be to wrap or weld over the 4 upstream leaks, either before or after we solve the geometry problem at the top end of the riser, and either stop the flow at the top end with a block valve or (preferably) insert a sealed "pipe" and direct the well product to the surface through any of many ways available to BP.  The latter is the clear winner since it does not run the risk of rupture of the riser, creating very little extra back-pressure on the weakened walls.

Inserting a Flexible Pipe with Wall Sealing

There are 3 principals which we will employ which allow this system to work.  First, we have developed various ideas about making deep water piping systems out of very high performance braided fiber (we call it superfiber) cylinders, coated with polymeric systems which protect and seal the resultant tubes.  Second, we use adhesives and stitching of fabric-to-fabric to create seams which work very well at pressures encountered in deep water E&P operations.  Third, we employ clever design and the principals of Judo to actually use the power of the high pressures in the well to fight the leak.

Our plan is in stages.

Reinforce or even stop the 4 leaks near the BOP (can be done later)

Cut the 7' line near the end of the riser: reinstall block valve (optional)


The two images below shows how we build and install an expandable pipe to grip the riser's inner surface and transition to either a block valve or the surface. We braid a pair of cylinders of super-fiber like Kevlar┬« and coat them with marine-grade, flexible urethane such as used on marine hawsers.  Outer cylinder is (say) 30 feet long and diameter sized to fit against the 20" inside diameter of riser. Outer surface should have embedded grit or even "thumbtacks" through the fabric to provide grip to inner surface of riser.


The inner cylinder is slightly smaller ... gap is not important ... and we use stitching and adhesive to connect inner cylinder to the outer cylinder at each end.  Here's an important innovation: we glue and stitch the two cylinders together longitudinally at several points around the circumference. This forms an elongated torus with space enough between the inner and outer walls.  And there are several longitudinal pressure chambers between the plies.   Install a flange around the upstream end to protect this double-walled pipe as we thread it into the riser around the pesky 7' pipe.   There is a bigger flange around the downstream end, where it will hook to a block valve.  In the annular space between the pipe layers, we install some small diameter plastic rods or pipes to make the flexible pipe rigid in the longitudinal direction without preventing it expanding to fit within the riser. This allows the ROVs to thread the flexible, double-walled pipe as far as possible into the riser, surrounding the 7" pipe.


How Does This Work?

Pressure at this level is approximately 151 atmospheres.  Inside the riser is somewhat higher. Pressure relieve valves (PRVs) are installed in the inner cylinder walls, set to open at pressures above (say) 155 atmospheres. This will allow material and pressure to enter the annular chamber.  When in place, we use a moderate head seawater pump to increase the pressure insider the annulus to (say) 200 atmospheres, which will increase the outer diameter because we have designed the braided, coated cylinder to expand under such differential pressures.  The grit or high tech thumbtacks will try to enter the walls of the riser, thereby increasing the friction required to displace the pipe from the riser.  Remember, our pesky 7" pipe is actually inside the annular pipe.  When expanded to meet the walls, our pipe will divert all flow into itself.

At the other end of our annular pipe is a traditional metal flange; we have invented proprietary means of transitioning securely from the flexible pipe to the flange.  Next comes a suitable block valve--preferably low pressure drop.  Then the pipe can connect to BP's various ways to pipe to the surface.

Here is where we draw upon the principals of judo, allowing the flowing well pressure to help us defeat the well flow.  With PRVs installed in the inner wall of our annular tube, any higher pressure inside the riser will allow gas or oil (or even drilling mud or water) to enter the annular space, equilibrating the pressure. The flexible tube will try to expand even further.  The higher pressure will act to push our designer thumbtacks through the wall of the super fiber tube, assuring that the pipe is not displaced.  Thus, the higher the internal pressure provided by the oil/gas formation, the better our seal.

While BP cannot be accused of being overly informative, we have heard that measured well pressures like 10 or 11 Kpounds/SqIn existed before the accident.  If true, we know that if we closed our block valve without any more pressure reduction from drilling mud (top kill is under way as this is written), the worst case scenario is for the pressure in the riser to approach 10,500 psi (about 715 atmospheres).  With 151 atm outside, the differential pressure across the riser would approach 564 atmospheres in this case.  Once the 20" diameter flexible pipe was outside the riser, it would experience that same differential pressure; we can design for this but would rather not, as it will increase the lead time greatly.  Therefore, we have allowed for using this approach and the block valve to shut off flow and do a top kill.  With no net flow of oil/gas upward, this would be  a relatively easy proposition.  But we do not like the risk/reward ratio.

How Would We Use the Product to Stop the Leak Soonest?

Our preferred method is to design the flexible pipe for much lower differential pressure, install it with an open block valve, prebolted to a line to the surface, with extra long flange bolts, allowing a gap after the block valve.  When the expandable flex-pipe is snaked into the riser by the ROV, the oil gas flow will be mostly diverted through the tube, through to low delta P block valve and leak out around the still open flange.  Once the tube has been inserted as far as feasible and the high head seawater pump pressures it up to seal and hold, our ROVs would torque down the flange bolts downstream of the open block valve and virtually all flow would be diverted to the waiting surface ships without putting any great strain on the rise from added pressure.

At that point, BP and the Feds are back in the driver's seat with the ability to evaluate the risk/reward of closing the block valve and doing a top kill vs. continuing to route the oil/gas to the surface normally while continuing the relief well.  Our instinct says that if the flow can be diverted with little risk of reverting before August, BP will elect to continue to relief well (do they still need 2?) and not risk a top kill which could damage the somewhat fragile riser.  Isn't it ironic that a 20 inch diameter seamless tube with 1 inch walls is considered fragile?

Ability to Execute

We believe that our affiliates can design and braid the tubes we describe.  Materials are readily available from DuPont and generic competitors.  While some of this design work has been done, some remains.  Most of the rest of this design is off-shelf and proven.

We have not even SWAGed a cost, but know that it would be among the least expensive of actions facing BP.  My German craftsman grandfather, who would be amazed by the audacity of this idea, always taught me to spend my attention on getting the right tool for every job.  This is the right tool.

Now, let's demand that some of this same kind of thinking be applied to how to prevent a mess like this from recurring.
While BP has tried to convince every one of its capability and competence to handle the crisis, we are now 36 days into the deep sea oil leak. Oil continues to gush out unabated from the damaged riser as can be seen here. Some of the problems which have been encountered in collecting the oil before it can cause environment damage have been:

  • Remoteness (the accident site is 50 miles offshore and 5,000 ft underwater)
  • Extreme pressure (150 atmospheres) and temperatures at the depth of leak causing engineering difficulty
  • Formation of Methane Hydrate (ice) crystals
  • Debris getting in the way of collection
  • Dispersion of oil before it can be collected at the ocean surface because of surface turbulence
Yet the solution seems pretty obvious to me. (1) We need a collection dome of the right size, (2) placed at the right area and depth, and (3) connected to the right collection device. While BP has seemingly got part three right, it is still struggling with parts one and two.

Townsend Solutions solves these problems using a collection dome that can be scaled to the required width and cross section area depending up on the size of spilled area. This "dome"--and it's called a tent, by the way--can be bought off-the-shelf and suitably modified for anchorage. This then inverted tent made of high performance fabric can be placed at a suitable depth that collects the oil below the "turbulent zone" but above the "Methane Hydrate" zone.

Because of its light weight the tent can be airlifted to the remote site and located right over the rising oil and gas plume. It can then be dropped to any desired depth by filling its anchoring cylinders at its edges with right amount and mix of seawater and air. It can then be fully extended to cover the entire area of the rising plume. Vertical and horizontal position in the water will be controlled with lines/hawsers and adjusting the buoyancy of seawater/air cylinders. (See picture below)

Phils Idea May 25.JPG

As a stratified plume of oil and gas bubble rises into the sections of the tent, it forms lighter gas/liquid phases in the peak of the tent which are collected along with a considerable volume of (contaminated) seawater by rigid pipes connected on top. After conventional separation of gas, liquid, and seawater phases on surface barge, we envision pumping seawater back down to the tent for recycling through the system.

An important design element is the need to minimize ocean pollution from the heavier and more damaging portions of the leak. Methane, Ethane, Propane and other hydrocarbons will invariably saturate surrounding seawater and be left behind in noticeable quantities. But heavier hydrocarbons are much less soluble in seawater and, therefore, a very large part the heavier hydrocarbons will be recovered by this system. Furthermore, crude oil will be concentrated in the down-current portion of the plume, so we expect 99% recovery of the crude portion of the leak. However, only tests will allow accurate estimation of the recovery for lighter fractions.

A famous quote from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle says "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth."

My version of the same for BP would go something like "When you have tried the bold and the bountiful, whatever remains, however simple, must be the answer." Anyone listening...??

Yesterday we posted an idea that involved using an altogether different collection device than what BP is trying to use. Today we discuss an improvement to BP's idea that could solve the methane hydrate clogging problem.  It is possible to build a device which channels the hydrocarbon plume to near the surface without 1) permanently forming methane hydrates or 2) allowing the contents of the plume to diffuse into the ocean.  It is also possible to resist stronger currents without increased dissipation of the hydrocarbons.  And we believe this is possible with the same off-the-shelf approach as mentioned in my last post.

Bringing the Plume Up with a Draft Tube

The image below is a schematic of a "draft tube" device for raising the leaking plume to near the surface for collection.  By doing this, we can routinely prevent the formation of methane hydrates by surrounding the plume with much warmer water.  We can constrain the flow of the plume into a tube. Then, we can collect the hydrocarbon with the inverted tent idea mentioned earlier, or with other collection devices, well above the hydrate zone.

Artist Rendering WP Idea 3ba.JPG
As with all elegant ideas, this idea is simple once you know of it.  If a fluid rises from buoyancy in a tube, it creates a lower pressure at the bottom of the tube.  In old furnace design, this was a "draft."  If we locate the first tube concentrically inside a second, outer tube, the working fluid will flow downward in the annular chamber between the 2 tubes.  In this design with hydrocarbons and seawater flowing upward, as in all hydraulic systems, the flows and pressures will come to an equilibrium, with upflow of our "plume" in the central tube and downflow of seawater in the annular channel.  The steady leaking of the plume into the central tube will continuously pull warm seawater down the annulus to join with the plume.

With the correct ratio of areas for the 2 tubes, this system will guarantee that we never have low temperature, methane and water at the same place, at least not for long.  Hence, no methane hydrates.  By having the top of this tube just below the collection tent, the buoyant oil droplets and the very buoyant gas bubbles will leave the top of the tube and be collected.  At that depth, water is a relatively warm 50 or 60 degrees F., and a sizeable flow of seawater to the bottom of the tube will assure that any hydrates are temporary.  We envision a conical bottom on each of our tubes, which should be located just above the leak to capture the plume.

Using Off-the-shelf Gear

Again, the only problems in accomplishing this are mechanical.  We believe that lightweight, ocean-resistant materials and the correct design will make this practical using available material.  The concentric tubes should be of either PVC or fiberglass-reinforced resin (FRP in the USA) pipe, preferably with bell ends.  Both are widely available.  Ocean-resistant bolts can be used to maintain the concentricity of either standard 20 foot or 40 foot sections, whatever is available.  Existing marine hawsers of "superfiber" are readily available and sufficient to hold the weight with attachments at each knuckle (perhaps with eye-bolts put thru-and-thru).  Each joint of double pipe is supported by bolts through the top joint, with all weight and tension borne by the hawser to the flotation collar at the top.  Since these same hawsers are strong enough to tow supertankers, the design allows most weight to be suspended from the hawsers.

Picking the Right Tubes and Protecting Them

It is important to use outer tubes of low pressure rating to drastically reduce the weight.  Pressure inside and outside of each tube should be maintained within the strength rating of tubes by installing plastic pressure relief valves (PRVs) liberally throughout the concentric tubes.  External pressure leaking into annulus will be no problem: extra fresh seawater would enter, slightly lowering temperature of the downflow.

The central tube should be of much heavier material to resist high differential pressures.  Annular pressure leaking into the center tube might be important, since too low a central pressure (i.e. extra gas bubbles could cause this) could cause the tubing to collapse under the differential pressure.  In the short term, the off-shelf availability of sufficient 14 to 18 inch diameter tubes  with sufficient wall strength is not assured.  Later, such tubes can be ordered.

Changing the thickness or diameter of the central tube is not feasible once in place.  It is desirable to vary the diameter of the central tube as depth increases, but a combination of operating experience and test runs will be required to learn how to pick the right diameter.   In the meantime, installing butterfly valves at the top and near the bottom of the central tube will allow choking the flow and prevent tubing collapse.

Another advantage of low-pressure-drop valves at both ends of the central tube will be to allow the entire tube assembly to be floated by filling the central tube with any gas.  We envision the assembly being transported by floating and towing, with suitable end caps.

Once at site, the rig should be assembled in a vertical position near the leaking plume but up-current and anchored to the bottom.  Siphon flow can be started by priming with a flow of any gas: nitrogen would be the safest and most available.  Once the flow of warm seawater to the bottom is established, the rig can be floated over the plume by letting out the anchor line.  As hydrocarbon enters the cone and draft tube, nitrogen flow is ceased to maintain measured pressure differentials.  We envision this transition to flowing methane as happening into a steady stream of relatively warm seawater.  Starting up is critical: this is where the BP team ran into a roadblock.

Adjusting to Field Conditions

Having PRVs set for below the pressure rating of the central tube is a much better way of protecting the tube, since it adapts automatically to any surge in pressure by opening the valves, allowing seawater to enter, and slowing the flow.   Whether the problem happens at the bottom or at the top of the draft tube, having PRVs and using the bottom butterfly valve solves the problem safely.

Also, if the draft tube is constructed in standard lengths, we can correct for problems in days, not weeks, by simply pulling up the tubes with the hawsers, and replacing anything that is broken or not performing as and when needed.

By the way, the draft tube idea works with the inverted box used by BP as Stab #1.  If the box and collection system is placed above the height where hydrates do not form, with a draft tube is inserted above the leak and below the box, the plume will be channeled  into the box above the "hydrate zone."

As always, we are open to suggestions.

We have been imagining and roughly engineering improved solutions to the "BP Oil Spill" with hopes of creating solutions which can be implemented quickly from existing equipment and materials.  See our last posting.

Over the 6 - 8 May period, BP discovered that at the 5,000 foot depth of the leaks (now down to 2 leaks with 1600 feet between the 4,200 Barrels/D and 800 B/D contributors), their inverted box of steel and concrete allowed methane hydrates to form and fill up the box.  Methane hydrates form at these ambient temperatures (0 to 5 degrees C.) and about 150 BAR (atmospheres) forming a slush and some larger crystals adhere to the box. Adherence is severe since the interior surface of concrete probably promotes crystal growth.  Since the methane hydrates are less dense than seawater, the box is not only plugged up, but will tend to float as hydrates are formed.  Whoops.

There is nothing new about methane hydrates: the ocean floor is teeming with them, mostly buried beneath softer surfaces. Anywhere methane and water get together at low temperatures and high pressures, you get the dreaded hydrates.  So how can this method be improved to either not allow hydrates to form or to raise temperatures (and lower pressures) and both melt and prevent hydrates?

We recommend raising the altitude of the collection device ... get close to the surface, but well below wave depth.  Capture the oil droplets and gas (at that altitude) bubbles where hydrates cannot form.  Our "inverted tent" from the previous posting needs to be positioned in the sea at a depth of 100 meters or even less, where the rising plume of oil and gas can be captured in the tent.  Rising to the top of our tent, the hydrocarbons will be drawn upward through large holes at the crown of the tent, along with a much larger volume of seawater.  On surface work/tank barges, positioned by tugs, the stream will be phase separated into 3 phases.  Gases will be flared until compression/collection shipping can be affected.  Hydrocarbon liquids will float on the surface of a seawater phase, to be collected and tanked to shore facilities.  Seawater, maybe saturated with hydrocarbons and perhaps with some fine hydrocarbon droplets, will be drawn from the lower phase, and pumped at low head for return under the sea to the bottom of the inverted tent.

Thus, we 1) establish a large flow of seawater upward with the hydrocarbon phases and 2) allow contaminated seawater to be re-exposed and re-equilibrated with hydrocarbons.  If need be, we can haul off barges of contaminated seawater for treatment.  More efficiently, we can install electrostatic/ chemical means of cleaning the seawater before it is recycled.  The net result is to cut the pollution, with the goal that anything that floats to the surface in the plume will tend to be captured and used or treated.

The only problems we see in this approach are mechanical, to adapt to the laws of hydraulics and fluid flow.  We have chosen ocean-friendly materials.  There may be a current, which would tend to drag and distort our tent.  The tent must have a large enough open mouth (viewed from the bottom) to capture the width of the hydrocarbon plume at this distance far above the bottom leaks (We don't have but someone knows the width and shape of the plume at 50 to 100 meter depth.)  We expect that a rectangular tent or tents of between 120 and 200 feet per side will capture a great deal of the hydrocarbon plume.  Reinforced, "rip-proof" nylon which has been coated by PVC seems to us to be an ideal off-the-shelf choice and is available in such sizes (e.g. revival tents or circus tents).  Fabric construction allows easy modification and reinforcement.

We know of ways to adapt sea-water-powered cylinders made of coated fabric to holding the shape of the tents under the forces we anticipate.  With a tent, these power cylinders can be stitched to the reinforced tent and recoated with coatings to provide a leak proof tent (perfection is not needed).  The forces seem capable of handling with this construction.

See the attached artist rendering of one such configuration for our inverted tent collector.  We welcome ideas for how to improve on this approach.

Artist Rendering WP Idea 2a.JPG

The tents, collection piping and supports for such a collector will not be under major wall stress, as the internal seawater and the external seawater have virtually the same hydraulic head.  Pressure drops will be designed to be low.  With surface tank barges fitted with working decks, the collector can be constrained between barges, which are rigidly attached to each other.  This will help the collector maintain its horizontal location over the oil plume as tugs maintain the position of the 2 barges.  We would envision flexible connectors between the barges and the riser or descender piping, so that the collector would be stable in the vertical dimension as the wave action caused the barges to rise and fall.

  • The fabrication of this rig would be facilitated by using goods and methods readily available on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
  • Off-shelf "revival" tents of rip-resistant nylon fabric coated with PVC, reinforced by stitching industrial straps and power cylinders to the inside or outside surface of the te
  • We believe that high strength tubing is available, since pressures will be low.
  • Piping is low head, either PVC pressure pipe or glass-resin composite piping is widely available.
  • Typical ocean-going tank barges for support/receiving/work can be used; cranes, pumps, compressors, and other equipment can be located on a steel deck
  • Underwater work can be either robotic or human divers, as appropriate, if depth is small enough.

Not that cost of a fix is the top consideration, but this approach is not capital equipment intensive.  As we envision this component-based approach being built and stockpiled near all potential leaks, or installed on structures for deployment, low capital cost will become much more important.

Since this BP accident is 50 miles offshore from Louisiana, and the next accident is Zeus-knows-where, we have given thought to transporting this rig from where major fabrication is to occur.  We would fabricate the reinforced tents and truck to a nearby boatyard.  We would assemble the subsea piping around the tents.  All piping would be sealed, all reinforcing cylinders would be sealed, and both would be filled with low pressure (say 1 BAR) nitrogen, making the subsea assembly float.  Once in the water (built on inflated rollers, say, and pulled into the water) the assembly would be towed to the site and connected to the other equipment delivered on 2 barges, all away from the plume.  Seawater under pressure would displace the transport nitrogen, allowing the rig to sink to desired depth.  Flows would be established using seawater only.  Then 2 or more tugs would reposition the entire rig with the tent over the plume, where oil and gas would begin to accumulate. Voila!

That will work for Phase I: if we are correct about the horizontal extent of the plume, we can establish 95+% recovery of floating crude hydrocarbons.  If the plume is wider, use more tents, since everything else expands linearly.  If needed, we can increase the re-circulating flow of crude oil, since this will reduce the forces on our piping and our tent.  At some difficulty, the rig could be lower in the water if that worked better.

When BP succeeds in stopping the leak, we can disassemble the parts, float the rig back to shore and await the next time we need to catch a deep bottom leak of oil or gas.

Did you notice that we had no problem with hydrates?

Did you notice that we did not use one of the worlds most sophisticated and expensive drill ships for several months?

Did you also notice that we did not purposely (or porpoisely?) disperse toxins into the ocean?

So there you have it.  We wonder how long it will take to hear from someone at BP!  Did someone copy Bill Maher on this?





When Bill Joy said: "There are always more smart people outside your company than within it," he wasn't trying to be a smart-alec.  Instead, he was urging companies to leverage ideas from outside to solve some of their most challenging problems.
Now, in a world of frozen financial markets with justified discouragement about returns to investors in conventional venture capital models, how can needed innovations be funded in relatively mature, but suddenly stressed,  industries such as plastics, electric power delivery, alternative energy, and energy delivery?

I think the answer is to form Solution Collaboratives.


A while back I blogged about Opening up Reverse Innovation in which I tried to make the case for another business model where solutions become the focus of "open collaboratives,"  Let's call this a solution collaborative:

Companies with a strategic interest in solving a problem or a class of problems can participate by funneling resources (money, labs, information, smart people, etc.) through the collaborative; by participating in direction; and by contact with analysis and expertise. Information from a collaborative world would logically lead to new entities which make problem-solving investment, but also could be individually exploited by strategic players.
How to Organize a Solution Collaborative

A solution collaborative is created in 2 stages, just as a proprietary venture might be formed. The first stage is to collaborate in researching and analyzing the solution to a technoeconomic problem of general interest across an industry or industries.  The result of this stage is a stream of information and consultations which flow back to all participants.   The collaboration brings technical expertise and knowledge of market needs to bear on any feasible solutions to this need, together with actionable information for individual collaborators to pursue.

The second stage is conditional.  If demanded by participants, the collaboration can even evolve to creating an organization to bring about the solution, to the mutual benefit of collaborators.   Since the collaboration is organized and has access to the "best and the brightest" from everywhere, and especially  benefits from having excellent feedback about market needs, a collaboration removes most of the risks which attend venture capital firms or the use of a proprietary R&D effort.

establishcollab.gif Why Collaborate?

Others have talked about the anecdotal benefits of a collaboration curve.  We can assure you that the benefits of collaboration are not anecdotal - but quantifiable, economic benefits.

Studies have shown that too many firms mistakenly applied an "outsourcing" mindset to collaboration efforts. This fatal mindset leads to three critical errors:

  1. they focus solely on lower costs, failing to consider the broader strategic role of collaboration.  
  2. they don't organize effectively for collaboration, believing instead that innovation could be managed much like production and partners treated like "suppliers."
  3. they don't invest in building collaborative capabilities, assuming that their existing people and processes are already equipped for the challenge.
To be successful requires you developed an explicit strategy for collaboration and make appropriate organizational changes to aid performance in these efforts.

Collaboration is a new and important source of competitive advantage. Speaking from experience, one of my companies - PTAI - has been doing collaboratives among industry competitors since 1972.  Back in the day, we called them "multiclient studies."  We acted as if we were a corporate staff group but with better access, studied the heck out of an issue, wrote a detailed analysis and sold it to the many interested parties.  Those in the plastics, automotive, paper, packaging  and other industries bought them widely on a variety of technoeconomic  issues.

Then, in the 1990s, PTAI innovated a method to benchmark performance among competitors in an industry, allowing any participant to quantitatively place its performance among competitors along hundreds of variables.  We continue to execute this method to the advantage of hundreds of global businesses in 55 specific industries and both numbers continue to grow.

Now we're turning our attention to solution collaboratives through another one of my companies - Townsend Solutionsto address some of the most pressing problems faced by some of the mature industries.

The problems that best lend themselves to a solution collaborative. 
When companies have problems that are not necessarily central to their core strategic business but still large enough to drain their resources, these problems become prime contenders for a collaborative. Widespread problems are even better candidates for a collaborative. A collaborative allows even direct competitors to solve a problem without poaching each other's competitive advantages. Of course there are many legal and anti-trust issues that need to be handled well. PTAI and TS have done collaboratives for over three decades now and deal with these issues.

In conclusion, a solution collaborative gains a company access to outside expertise. It is also a platform that promotes collective experience gains, propelling the collaboration curve for the whole solution. A collaborative not only allows participants more access to smart people but also creates an environment where these people actually becomes smarter through the interaction with other participants. 

In my last post, Beyond Copenhagen: Thomas Friedman’s “Earth Race”,  I proposed dividing the problem of global warming into three specific approaches:

1. Mitigation: ways to minimize the effects of greenhouse gases.
2. Reduction: ways to reduce the current production of greenhouse gases.
3. Substitution: ways to substitute cleaner alternatives which minimize the expanding  production of greenhouse gases.

In this entry, we look at mitigation - specifically at two ideas proposed by Nathan Myhrvold and his team at Intellectual Ventures.

Here’s the first of these remediation schemes - ladies and gents, the Stratoshield.  The Intellectual Ventures team says:

We’ve been working on some ideas related to climate change, as a kind of backup plan in case human effort to curb emissions don’t succeed fast enough to prevent devastating ecological damage. One of the ideas that has captured our imagination is replicating the way volcanoes have at times brought down the temperature of the planet by erupting sulfur dioxide particles up into the stratosphere. We’ve invented a hose to the sky we call the Stratoshield, which is a comparatively cost effective way to do this.

Take a look:

My view is that we do need to try something like this before it’s too late. If you thought the CO2 impact is bad, wait till the methane gets going. Actually, it already has. More to the point, we can’t even afford the risk that the alarmists are right.

My perspective (1) as an earth-based carbon-leased life form; (2) as a pretty good scientist; and (3) as a lifelong business manager working under uncertainty, tells me as do all my instincts: we must not let our primeval biases about ideas keep the world from running all experiments which show even a long-shot chance of helping solve global warming in the worst cases. Intellectual Ventures has hit on one such tool…and we need to push for its experimentation so we’ll know if it works.

We can fight later with the “Gore-ites” over the morality, but we need to find out enough economic incentives so that we can find someone who will be ready to pay for it.

The question I have is about the delivery mechanism.

With 100 mph winds in the upper atmosphere, the hose as suggested by Nathan, won’t easily stay up. And that first step, from no stratoshield to one stratoshield is a doozie. A better way would be to adapt the freighters such as UPS and FedEx planes with a sulfur-dispensing module which they use while they fly, scattering sulfur particles on each flight.  This module can be safely engineered to burn liquid sulfur using ambient air. It would resemble a turbine engine that is not mission critical, as propulsion turbines are. This will enable us to test the impact of the sulfur delivery over time, and will provide for a far wider range of distribution than would a single point source.

A second way to run tests or to supplement the stratoshield is to use the airships already being built by the military for their intelligence gathering tasks. There are patents on a new generation of lifting airships which can use helium to lift multiple tons of cargo to heights needed for the stratoshield. By either lifting sulfur and a burner designed to utilize the jet stream for mixing, or alternatively, by lifting liquid SO2 and “spritizing” it, a 21st century airship could be a cost competitive way to “SO2-ize” the atmosphere. And we can sell photos or videos to anyone who is interested—mostly intelligence agencies—to pay for mission. Did I mention that this would be an unmanned vehicle?

And here’s mitigation idea #2: Use over-ocean clouds to reflect sunlight back to space, reducing net sunlight to reach the surface just as the CO2 clusters reduce the heat leaving earth. Numerous people have suggested ways to put more clouds up over the oceans, but Intellectual Ventures has checked in with ideas on this too. More clouds mean lower ocean temperatures, countering the adverse effect of CO2 or methane.

Both of these ideas are easily reversible. Even if Intellectual Ventures is wrong…though I do think they are not. So as we work to lower CO2 (and methane) we can get to work learning to counteract; and we can always change our minds later, as and when we learn magical new ways to reduce or mitigate CO2. This is so simple that both Al Gore and Rush Limbaugh can understand and support it.

Then there is the Salter Sink concept. This Intellectual Ventures idea from Stephen Salter aims to take energy out of hurricanes/typhoons by lowering ocean surface temperature in zones where such storms get their “oomph”. Here, let Nathan and company tell you about it:

The Salter Sink works as a wave powered pump. Waves push hot water into the top of the cylinder, which pumps the water inside down. It comes out the bottom (around 200 meters below) and mixes with colder water. This brings the temperature on the surface down over time. A Salter Sink can move about a gigawatt of thermal energy! It may take thousands of these to protect Americas Gulf region (for example) but we estimate the cost would be much lower than the damage caused by one of these storms.

What’s intriguing about these ideas is not that they seem rather farfetched but their sheer audacity and, here’s the thing, their sheer simplicity. They may actually work. And so we may be able to sell them politically, since they are both (1) incremental and (2) reversible.

Again, what’s more interesting is, however, their marketing and economics. Who will pay for them?

Martin Varsavsky suggests we get the Saudis to fund these experiments, which may work, but, as an economist,  I have my doubts. We want to become less dependent on the Middle East, not more. I think a sure way to make the Salter Sink idea succeed is to give the locals a way to profit from it.

Let me explain:

If we have thousands of these floating cylinders pumping hot surface water to the colder depths, I agree, the storm intensity will be diminished. And that’s mostly good, although we need to test the idea to find all the consequences for ocean life, currents, and navigation…whatever. And we may have also helped counter global warming by bringing cold water to the surface. As a bonus, each Salter Sink collects warm, oxygenated surface water containing plankton and other fish food and pumps it 200 meters down over several hours.

Does that sound like a good place to raise fish? It does to me! And lo and behold, we have a potential natural fish farm that once appropriately designed raises some of the most healthy and fresh exotic sea fish ready to be supplied all over the world.

I suggest we find also ways to charge those who gain from lower storm intensity—insurance service providers, coastal town or cities’ real estate developers, states and federal agencies responsible for disaster management, electric utilities, and off shore oil operators.

Eventually, unless we learn from the economic theory of commons and build it into our model, we may have a great idea but no takers!

In today's Wall Street Journal they're blogging about Paul Mc Cartney - bashing him for trying to make a difference. And when you look at the list of all the blog entries for today, there's not one mention of Copenhagen, not one mention of the very real issues at stake for the world.

Instead we see a concert of ignorant swift-boating going on, targeting the masses with false claims and irrelevant chatter - in order to obstruct the work that needs to get done. This type of obstructionism is not going to help business interests, only hurt them.

The science historian (and physicist) Spencer Weart says in the WaPo:

The theft and use of the emails does reveal something interesting about the social context. It's a symptom of something entirely new in the history of science: Aside from crackpots who complain that a conspiracy is suppressing their personal discoveries, we've never before seen a set of people accuse an entire community of scientists of deliberate deception and other professional malfeasance.

Even the tobacco companies never tried to slander legitimate cancer researchers. In blogs, talk radio and other new media, we are told that the warnings about future global warming issued by the national science academies, scientific societies, and governments of all the leading nations are not only mistaken, but based on a hoax, indeed a conspiracy that must involve thousands of respected researchers. Extraordinary and, frankly, weird. Climate scientists are naturally upset, exasperated, and sometimes goaded into intemperate responses... but that was already easy to see in their blogs and other writings.
The Copenhagen diagnosis is bleak.  It documents the key findings in climate change science since the publication of the landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report in 2007.

The new evidence to have emerged includes:

  • Arctic sea-ice has melted far beyond the expectations of climate models. For example, the area of summer sea-ice melt during 2007-2009 was about 40% greater than the average projection from the 2007 IPCC Fourth Assessment Report.
  • The sea level has risen more than 5 centimeters over the past 15 years, about 80% higher than IPCC projections from 2001. Accounting for ice-sheets and glaciers, global sea-level rise may exceed 1 meter by 2100, with a rise of up to 2 meters considered an upper limit by this time.  This is much higher than previously projected by the IPCC.  Furthermore, beyond 2100, sea level rise of several meters must be expected over the next few centuries.
  • In 2008 carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels were ~40% higher than those in 1990. Even if emissions do not grow beyond today's levels, within just 20 years the world will have used up the allowable emissions to have a reasonable chance of limiting warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

The report concludes that global emissions must peak then decline rapidly within the next five to ten years for the world to have a reasonable chance of avoiding the very worst impacts of climate change.And here we have the Wall Street Journal bashing Sir Paul.  The press has abdicated its responsibility, it seems, and so have far too many businesses. 
A comparison between the 1988 global mean temp...

Image via Wikipedia

The US Chamber of Commerce has also laid out an aggressive agenda of obstructionism, causing several of its members to resign.

On the other side, some scientists, like James Hansen for example, point out that the "cap and trade" regime being advocated in Copenhagen is faulty from the outset. Hansen's point is solid: "only a direct tax on fossil fuels as close to the source as possible would succeed in stopping the rise of emissions."


So what's the big deal about Copenhagen, anyway?  

What should business be doing?

If you believe that there are important reasons to reduce CO2  levels in the atmosphere, or even to stop the growth of CO2 levels, then Copenhagen is crucial. You should hope that most of  the world's CO2-emitting countries cobble together individual targets and commit at Copenhagen to put teeth into individual company targets for future CO2 emissions. Let's call these the Copenhagen Rules.

The organizers of Copenhagen correctly emphasize that two other results will be important.  First, that all of us rich, developed countries agree to fund specific CO2-related activities by poorer, developing countries.  A series of big, important arguments going on there, since most of the increase by 2050 in the Global Middle Class will be in such countries.  And the global middle class drives CO2 emissions. Second, that recipients countries commit to a set of listed actions to use that help to minimize their emissions of CO2.  That negotiation will go on long after Copenhagen closes.

Instead of beating around the bush, businesses need to face the reality of climate change and craft new, innovative strategies to meet the challenges ahead.  Burying their heads in the sand is not exactly a business strategy.

Here's what needs to happen:

  • A carbon tax must become a reality: the free-lunch is over. Emissions must be controlled world-wide.
  • Businesses must invite all stakeholders to the table and look for collaborative solutions. Yes, that means Big Coal needs to sit down at the same table with Judy Bonds.
  • Collaborative does not mean industry-led.
  • Countries will not reduce CO2 emissions!  Innovators must reduce CO2 emissions.  Countries set either arbitrary, bureaucratic rules which incentivize and constrain innovators; or countries create economic incentives which guide innovators to the desired goal, in this case slowing and eventually reversing the CO2 content of the atmosphere from the current 380 parts per million (PPM), back toward the 19th century level of 280 PPM.  Until Copenhagen Rules have be agreed upon and later made effective, thousands of innovators are partially hamstrung in launching thousands of actions designed to reach that CO2 goal.
We have a strong bias against the individual governments getting in the way of innovators.  Applying a variant of Occam's Razor, the best way is probably the simplest way to guide innovation to reduction in CO2 concentrations.  We strongly suggest that, to make a difference, all emissions of CO2 must be taxed and economic mechanisms used to adjust the distortions and any unintended consequences. 

The truth (plus a simple carbon tax) will set innovators free!

If Copenhagen Rules emerge and are ratified and given teeth, then innovators will have a defined playing field for "getting the ball rolling."  Sustainable energy development needs to know that it will be allowed to create returns on a very large investment.  Taxing unsustainable energy will stabilize returns on any sustainable energy.  Currently, such projects are dependent on large, inefficient subsidies, funded by governments which would rather pick winners than let the innovators make and lose money by creating winners.  Well-intentioned people have for years agreed to use sustainable energy subsidies, and the ball is indeed rolling is some places. 

Copenhagen Rules are about freeing up global innovation, which should not be limited to those rich countries who have been generous enough to pay for these large subsidies.  Copenhagen Rules will transfer the responsibility globally and cause the solution to also be global.

So even though Copenhagen Rules are certainly not optimal, they are a crucial first, global step.  Reducing CO2 emissions will not only help lead to lower CO2 levels and therefore help (by an amount yet to be determined) slow global warming, but it produces the following desirable results:

  • It will make coal mining and burning pay its own way, which probably will slow or reverse environmental damage.  If there is a viable technology called "clean coal," the Copenhagen Rules will replace dirty coal with clean coal, and replace all coal at the margins.  This is critical in China and India.
  • The Copenhagen Rules will quantify the incentives for better Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) technologies.  Innovators are working on these, but they need clear signals.
  • The potential for new natural gas supplies will be aided by Copenhagen Rules, since natural gas will be favored over liquid petroleum and especially over coal.  And new natural gas is apparently quite abundant at a "middling" price relative to petroleum.
  • Since new "shale gas" technology shows promise of domestic gas supplies in many countries on the Earth, the Copenhagen Rules will assist this new, domestic gas in displacing imported, OPEC-priced petroleum.  The economic influence of slowing the need for new liquid petroleum will improve the living standard of many poor and some rich petroleum importers.  
  • Development in emerging economies does not have to follow the same road we took in the west.  New alternatives can and will work, if the price is right to encourage technology transfers.
  • But maybe the biggest, vaguest impact of new, domestic gas production could be the geopolitical influence.  If the global community is less vulnerable to importing more petroleum, the Middle East might be a more stable region.  Or maybe not, given history. And the Copenhagen Rules are a step in this direction, away from petroleum addiction.
One final observation on swift-boating: we know that drama sells. In the American media, "climategate" is beginning to push Sarah Palin off the front page.  But it is also a big, fat, smelly red herring.  Throw out all that theater (for now) and Copenhagen Rules are still justified and important - for all the reasons above.

We are running out of time, and there are no bail-outs for the Earth.
In an important Harvard Business Review article - How GE is Disrupting Itself, by GE's Jeff Immelt and Dartmouth professors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble, we are introduced to the idea of reverse innovation - an innovation likely to be created or adopted first in the developing world and then marketed worldwide.

The article also shows that reverse innovation presents an "organizational challenge for incumbent multinationals headquartered in the rich world," as Govindarajan explains it, and also presents an organizational model for overcoming that challenge.

A great set of ideas--especially if you are the CEO of a global company rich in resources for innovation!

But what do we learn about the rest of us innovators--those who see important problems solvable with identifiable technologies?
The innovation literature predicts that big companies acquire their most critical innovations--from individuals, academicians, "skunk works"--essentially from "islands" of innovation. Let's look at how to extend this model of how to manage the development of island-based innovation. Then these insulated innovations gain help from the "mainland"--resources of all sorts--without which they would grow slowly or not at all.

The gist of the HBR article is that the flow can then be reversed to the developed world--the mainland. To do so, it makes two fundamental assumptions--assumptions that, unfortunately, do not hold true for the majority of us. And these are, first, you have islands of talent available in your company, and second, these islands have access to a mainland rich in resources.

The non-GE world, therefore needs a new business model to help these islands of innovation create and develop solutions to pressing problems.

What if we were to combine reverse innovation as described in the article with Henry Chesbrough's concept of open innovation? A quick reminder on what it is:

Open innovation is a paradigm that assumes that firms can and should use external ideas as well as internal ideas, and internal and external paths to market, as the firms look to advance their technology". The boundaries between a firm and its environment have become more permeable; innovations can easily transfer inward and outward. The central idea behind open innovation is that in a world of widely distributed knowledge, companies cannot afford to rely entirely on their own research, but should instead buy or license processes or inventions (e.g. patents) from other companies. In addition, internal inventions not being used in a firm's business should be taken outside the company (e.g., through licensing, joint ventures, spin-offs).


Procter and Gamble's now famous "conversion" to their open innovation model shows us that large multinationals can use the innovations produced by the "islands" (individuals and small companies) and turned into massive revenue streams for the "mainland."

So why can't a company like GE follow down this path with "open reverse innovation" - inviting small companies in India and China to submit their products, services and ideas to be evaluated by GE for global distribution.  Of course, the open model would require an environment of trust - but what better way to create goodwill in new markets than to be seen as a development partner in the China, India, and resource-starved Africa?  A.G. Lafley sits on GE's board; surely he could help them get started.

Question: does GE have the culture to embrace open reverse innovation?

Over 20 years ago I was called in by Bill Stavropoulos , now the retired Chairman, to meet with the top polymer managers at Dow Chemical.  He asked the following: "How should Dow change the way it manages to build Dow businesses in new areas like high performance plastics?"  The edited answer is smoother after so many years, but it is the same answer I gave all those years ago:

Large organizations like Dow must struggle to become more open systems, not closed systems, if they wish to innovate for the outside world.  Staff spend too much time working with people inside the system, not embracing the ideas of outside people.  And large companies worry too much about keeping their knowledge secret: conversely, they do too little interacting with outsiders, including their target customers, or ivory tower types, or just plain dreamers. Company culture is an obstacle to success.
Another business model, if needed, is where solutions become the focus of "open collaboratives,"-- new entities that can acquire and make available the same or similar kinds of resources available within GE to the island-based problem solvers. Companies with a strategic interest in solving a problem or a class of problems (including GE) can participate by funneling resources (money, labs, information, smart people, etc.) through the collaborative; by participating in direction; and by contact with analysis and expertise. Information from a collaborative world would logically lead to new entities which make problem-solving investment, but also could be individually exploited by strategic players.

In other words, islands without mainland support can come together to form "virtual mainland", thereby, exponentially increasing their problem-solving capabilities. Again, the model is applicable in both East and West.

Sidenote: although the venture capital model is one alternative to what VG and Jeff describe--it is clearly focused on developed markets and making profits for the financial (i.e. not strategic) investors. All VC collaboration is mostly through balance sheets, not among experts or teams. So VCs are inherently not designed to meet the same needs.

Here are a couple of examples of possible "collaboratives" we have been working to create.

Village Empowerment: The 3 billion or so people of the developing world who are not part of the modern economy need us innovators to create practical ways that villages can have enough food, electric power, clean water, education, and sources of cash income. Most of all the villages need to create elements of a good life without having to emigrate. Trying to solve the urban problems because of increased influx of rural population is more of a symptomatic treatment. It doesn't address the root cause. Better would be to take the jobs to the villages and remove the basic need for villagers to move out. Currently, here are many technologies working in individual silos aimed at solving some of these problems. They need to come together in a holistic way, which we believe needs a collaborative effort. Once developed, this set of tools will find applications back here on the mainland.

Climate Change: Another example is that the whole world needs better ways to stop global warming. Adding carbon taxes provides the necessary drive--but who or what solves the problem? There are numerous approaches to "fixing" carbon which need intensive development and the solution is really many solutions. A collaborative effort to fix carbon in many ways is a natural for creating and developing as many island-based solutions as possible. And every company (or government) with a carbon problem or a possible carbon solution should be part of the one (or more) such collaboratives, hoping to get the problem solved well for all our good.

Compressed Natural Gas (CNG): CNG can be the bridge to a clean, secure vehicular fuel future.  The elements of this system are on various islands.  First, new technology to find and produce economical natural gas in many places seems likely to result from the North American "shale gas" revolution: CNG will be available and relatively cheap for several decades.  Second, adapting both large and small internal combustion engines to operate on CNG is proven and important already in India, Argentina, Thailand: about 8 million vehicles out of the world's billion or so vehicles have been modified to run on CNG. Clean air was an important driving force. Innovative ideas exist for more efficient on board storage of CNG, replacing today's Rube Goldberg storage systems, and modifying the existing fleet saves years of development.   CNG filling stations are a known technology ... and other innovations such as interchangable storage tanks are suggested by the battery venture, Better Place.  What makes CNG look most interesting as a possible collaboration?  There are many strategic players who would benefit from a rapid adoption of CNG as transport fuel: gas producers; progressive auto manufacturers; fuel retailing chains; oil-less countries; megaretailers; and even Al Gore! 

Even GE is too small for solving these gigantic problems. But we bet that somewhere,  someone on some island may have the answer...or at least part of the answer. And a collaborative can help find those who have the other part.

Again, there is historical precedent for these collaboratives.  The WWII Manahattan Project comes to mind - why can't we bring the best and brightest together in peace time?  Is war our best motivator?

Surely we can do better - as individuals, companies, societies, and yes, nations.

Here's to open reverse innovation!

About "Wild Phil" Townsend and this Blog

Hi, welcome to my blog. Over the years I’ve been called many names (some of which cannot be mentioned in polite society) Skipper, Phil, “Mad Professor” Townsend and now - more appropriately, I guess - “Wild Phil.”  I’m an entrepreneur who loves to innovate, invent, and tinker with ideas and technology.

mit_logo.gifAs a teenager raising cattle in a farm outside of Muncie, Indiana I would look at passing by car registration numbers and wonder if they were perfect squares or cubes. When it came  time to decide on college, it was only natural to that naive 17 year old that I should go to MIT.

The fact that I was the first person in my family to go to college did not bother me a bit. I ended up getting my diploma in Economics and Chemical Engineering.  Afterward, I attended Purdue on an NSF Fellowship and obtained a Masters in Chemical Engineering.

My industrial background came next during 5+ years with Shell Chemical in Houston, where I did and supervised chemical process design and development and managed chemical plants.  The entrepreneurial bug in me, however, made me realize pretty soon that I was better off being my own employer, so I went back to school at Harvard’s Doctoral Program in Business.

hbs.gifI wore a T-shirt that said “Harvard, because not everyone can make it into MIT” while pursuing my business doctoral studies at Harvard Business School teaching management of technology to the MBA students.

However, just short of submitting my doctoral thesis, bigger opportunities in form of the world’s first energy crisis beckoned me back to Texas.


ptai.gifHouston - the Bayou City - has been my home ever since.  I founded several companies including Phillip Townsend Associates, Inc. a leading global benchmarking company and Townsend Solutions, a global consultancy on plastics and materials.

townsendsolutions.gif I was also chairman and part owner of a large utilities services company which had 2,000 employees across 23 states in the US for clearing and maintaining electric distribution lines.

Some of my other fun ventures include Wild Phil’s Buffalo Ranch.

So what’s the big idea? 

Why blog, and why now? 

I started this blog for several reasons:

  • to create a space to discuss ideas and innovations we’ve encountered to build a more sustainable industrial ecosystem

  • to connect with individuals and companies involved in making a difference

  • to build an idea platform for some of the more “wacky” solutions we come across in our day to day activities (some of our most innovative ideas come straight out of the field, not the corporate labs)

  • to rant and rave, and occasionally bring something worthwhile to the innovation table

  • to invent better ways to collaborate across the value chain and make these ideas happen

Won’t you join the conversation? 

You can contact me at phil [at]

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