We Have The Technologies To Deal With Oil Spills, Why Don’t We Use Them?

Twenty Four hours ago my colleague Dexter Johnson asked my opinion about what nanotechnology could do to help clean up the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and I reluctantly said “not much.”

But this doesn’t have to be the answer, we probably have access to most of the technologies that we would need to make a big dent in the environmental mess that is unfolding, but why haven’t they been used?

The answer, as Andrew Maynard and I found out through our work with the World Economic Forum, is that most governments are reactive rather than proactive. The emphasis is on regulating risk rather than developing technologies that would help us deal more effectively with risk, and this disaster illustrates how, when something goes wrong, governments want to be able to pluck fully formed technologies from a tree. Unfortunately the branches are bare.

So what should we be doing to help us deal with inevitable disasters? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but with a bill estimated at $15 billion for this incident alone, shouldn’t we be spending a few hundred million on making sure that we have the right technologies?

Between nanotechnology, industrial biotech and perhaps even synthetic biology, and not forgetting traditional chemistry I’d bet that we already have 90% of the technology we need. Light, strong, resistant materials for plugging leaks and corralling slicks, enzymes to transform oil into something more manageable, and dispersants to break up the slicks.

It is a certainty that somewhere in the world we will have another oil spill. What is less certain that by then we will have developed the technologies to stop an accident becoming a catastrophe.

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