Disaster Innovations

Deadly disasters are spurring innovations that may prevent similar catastrophes from recurring in the future.  Last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has paved way for new devices to surface in order to address some of the key problems of the Deepwater Horizon blowout; from the equipment’s failure to seal the well to the lack of technology to contain the spill.

For example, a major target for innovation is called a blowout preventer, a rig’s last line of defense against an out-of-control oil well. Three major manufacturers of blowout preventers- National Oilwell Varco Inc., Cameron International Corp., and General Electric Co. – announced new designs last April that feature stronger, more efficient shear rams to cut through thicker pipe, seal the well and stop an uncontrolled spill. Moreover, Bornemann Pumps, a German company, has invented a type of underwater vacuum that utilizes a high-capacity pump to siphon oil and gas from the leak source. The company argues that its “subsea collection system” is a better way to contain a spill than scooping oil from the sea’s surface or breaking down oil molecules with chemical dispersants. Although the effectiveness of these new technologies are still unclear, it is noteworthy that the oil disaster shed light on key problems and spurred innovation as a result.

While some innovations arise from disasters, some others are ready to be deployed when disaster strikes. Inflatable hospitals, hospitals in the form of a series of tents that rest on an inflatable frame, can be erected in less than 48 hours and come complete with emergency rooms, operating theaters, and intensive care units. This innovation has been particularly useful in disaster-struck areas where local hospitals are severely damaged. Medecins Sans Frontieres has pioneered the use of inflatable hospitals since 2005, in the aftermath of severe earthquake in Pakistan that year and in Haiti in 2010. PermaNet, a type of mosquito net that has been infused with long-lasting anti-mosquito repellant, also proved to be effective during crisis by containing the spread of malaria. It was successfully used after the earthquakes in Pakistan and Haiti where people were forced to live in shelters and malaria remained a serious threat.

Posted by: Hyun Kyong Lee

Sources: The Wall Street Journal, BBC News

Photo Credit: Deepwater Horizon response courtesy of flickr user Deepwater Horizon Response


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