From a month-old copy of Physical Review Letters, NPR stumbled on an article bearing the somewhat impenetrable title, "Viscoelastic Suppression of Gravity-Driven Counterflow Instability." Behind the mouthful was an interesting premise: That the calamitous BP well could have been plugged using oobleck. The combination of two parts cornstarch to one part water, which takes its name from Dr. Seuss's Bartholomew and the Oobleck, is a bizarre substance that flows like a liquid at slow speeds, and turns solid at fast.
The idea is the brainchild of physics professor Jonathan Katz, who noted that in the failed top-kill approach, the oil and gas rocketing up the well broke the drilling mud into fine particles. That made him wonder whether there was a fluid that wouldn't share the same fate—and then he thought of oobleck. Katz, who was on the energy secretary's advisory panel, sent out his idea; but he was cut from the panel a short time later due to some controversial social opinions on his website. The report in Physical Review Letters notes that when Katz experimented with the mixture and mineral oil under highly idealized circumstances, it did indeed work. A BP spokeswoman told NPR its engineers decided the idea wouldn't fly, and one professor of fluid dynamics points out another issue: Because oobleck turns into a solid at fast speeds, he calculated that you'd have to pump it so slowly that you couldn't get it down the hole faster than the oil was coming up. (Read more BP oil spill stories.)