There's no reason to believe that this kind of thinking can not be applied to the catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico.
In my opinion, the high-level requirements for an ideal "Oil Spill Cleaner" would be a system in which:
- oil-befouled water would be "vacuumed" up and run through a process which would separate the oil from the water, with the cleaned water being returned to its repository and the oil being directed to tanks for reclamation.
- Additional mechanisms would be designed to perform the same operations below the water surface to any arbitrary depth.
- The process must be available and ready to be deployed immediately to any location where an oil spill has been detected.
- The process must be scalable to contain oil spills of any size.
A system to fulfill these requirements can easily be imagined:
I see the basic component as a sea-going vessel, where the "gill" for taking in oil-spilled water would be a mechanism running the entire length of the vessel. The vessel would be designed so that it could move sideways through the water at a very low rate of speed. It would also be designed to move forward through the water in the normal way at higher rates of speed. Finally, the vessel would be designed as a large oil tanker for receiving and storing oil.
A vessel, so designed and outfitted, could motor normally and quickly to a spill location and then begin moving sideways at a slow speed to take in a broad section of oil-water for processing through its vessel-long "gill". It would not be necessary to build longer vessels for larger spills - the vessels would be designed as components that could be deployed in larger numbers to scale up to large spills. The strategy would be to deploy a sufficient number of vessels to encircle the spill. (Note that, with such a system, most oil-spills could be contained by a small number of vessels while the spills were still small.)
For oil that collects below the water surface, it may be efficacious to design an additional, submersible component that could vacuum up oil at any arbitrary depth. These components could be made relatively small so that they could suck up a quantity of oil, and then return it to the "mother" vessel by making frequent round trips. The "mother" vessel could process surface oil at same time that it was deploying and receiving oil obtained by the deep-water submersibles.
Since the system would result in the reclamation of spilled oil, the process could pay for itself. However, since actual spills will be relatively rare events, it would not be profitable for even a consortium of private corporations to design, build and maintain such a system in constant readiness. Governments will have to subsidize the entire process. They will pay for the system, but, of course, they should contract the design and development to the private sector.
The question may arise as to whether it would be feasible even for governments to maintain a system that might never be used. But that's not the issue. Such a system will be required for governments to be willing to allow deepwater oil wells to be used in the future.
Another question involves the feasibility of testing such a system in the absence of a major oil spill. The testing will be crucial for convincing the governments to put their faith in the system.
This brings me to my final thought: I say, give the job to Google to head up the design and martial the required, expert resources for development. Tell Larry, Sergey and Eric to have a prototype ready for testing by the end of the month. We may never again have a better test bed than we have today in the Gulf of Mexico.