There is a short list of the most challenging mechatronic applications. Wind turbine gear boxes and electric cars are among that list of challenging applications.
With all the discussion about offshore drilling, it should certainly be mentioned that oil well drilling is one of the toughest mechatronic challenges ever. Constructing and powering drill bits that can cut through rock at depths of up to 30,000 feet has to be on the top ten list.
The first known offshore drilling for oil occurred in Galveston Bay when the early Sharp-Hughes two cone rock bit was first demonstrated in 1909. Howard Hughes Sr. founded the Hughes Tool Company after buying out Sharp and Howard Hughes Jr. became the wealthiest man in America during the 1950’s. It is said that every drop of oil produced in America from 1934 to 1951 was produced using a Hughes drill bit.
The drilling industry has produced every possible variation of down hole tool from data gathering equipment to nuclear magnetic resonance detectors which look for defects in the pipe throughout the well casings.
Add to this the complications of drilling under water. Offshore oil rigs are mammoth machines that sit on “jacks”, like giant adjustable stilts, that are electric motor powered to raise and lower the entire works of the platform.
The oil well is under thousands of feet of water which makes matters even more complicated. At 5,000 feet of depth, the water pressure represents more than 2,000 pounds per square inch of pressure.
And drilling offshore roughly doubles the cost of producing the oil.
So you have to ask the question; how did we get here? Why are we drilling further and further offshore and increasing the risk of a disaster? And I will mention again, that the industry rate of spills has been declining consistently.
The answers are perplexing. We don’t drill on land because our Congress cannot agree to issue permits. Democrats in Congress blocked drilling in Alaska on a very small parcel of land that had been surveyed and all the environmental studies had been done. Ken Salazar, Secretary of the Interior refused to permit Shell Oil to do shale oil production in the remote parts of Colorado after Shell had done all it’s due diligence and spent millions of dollars getting prepared.
Offshore drilling is being pushed further offshore so that the drilling equipment cannot be seen from the shore, and presumably, there would be less environmental impact on local fish and wildlife. Guess somebody in Congress got that one wrong.
And what about John Hofmeister’s, Shell Oil’s former CEO now turned activitist citizen, who recently commented that the US has oil reserves in Nebraska, Alaska, Texas and off it’s coasts to provide cheap oil and gas for the next 1000 years. Guess Congress missed that one too.
I am not a fan of gasoline powered transportation. But I recognize that it is the most economical form of transportation. The fact of it’s low cost is what has made gasoline powered vehicles popular to the point that consumption has tripled since 1950.
So the real challenge is coming up with something that is lower cost and cleaner. And there are lots of options to be explored. If we can get the political issues out of the way.
The Governor of Louisiana has stated that suspending offshore drilling will eliminate thousands of jobs. The oil spill has ruined fishing in the Gulf Coast for an undetermined period of time. Denying the permits for shale oil in Colorado cost the country 10,000 jobs.
When do we stop listening to people in Washington, and return to doing what is right locally. We can fix things on our own. That’s what Americans do.