Millions of gallons of crude oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico during the seabed oil drilling catastrophe of 2010. Numerous strategies to stop or stem the oil flow (underwater vehicles, containment dome, cement seal top kill) proved unworkable before the well was finally capped. Even more controversial than the escaping oil was the inability to monitor and measure the oil flow while repairs were attempted.

Applications for the emergency shutoff device include petroleum blowout prevention, chemical plant flow metering, and other industrial processes.

Motivated by this catastrophe, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center designed a device to plug, control, and meter the flow of gases and liquids. Anchored with friction fittings, spikes, or explosively activated fasteners, the device is well suited for harsh environments and high fluid velocities and pressures. With the addition of instrumentation, it can also be used as a variable area flow metering valve that can be set based upon flow conditions. With robotic additions, the device can be configured to crawl into a pipe and then anchor and activate itself to block or control fluid flow.

The device incorporates a metallic, variable-area, cone-shaped mechanism to restrict the cross-sectional area of a pipe to throttle and control gas and liquid flow. The pointed shape allows easy insertion into a flowing pipe with minimal resistance. The device is anchored within the pipe using compression, lead screws, or pyrotechnic mechanisms when activated remotely.

Actuators are used to mechanically change the device shape, which stops or controls pipe flow; with appropriate robotics, activation can be performed remotely. With proper pipe framing, nearly 100-percent flow blockage is possible.

The NASA innovation can be left in place to permanently plug a pipe, or it can be removed after necessary repairs. Other repair strategies are not removable, so they permanently block pipe access when used. Also unique is the device’s ability to control flow in a wide range (1-95 percent of the original flow) and to measure flow while repairs are made. In addition, it does not require backfill with epoxy, cement, etc.

For the oil industry, the device can reduce the amount of escaping oil from a broken pipe while relief wells are drilled. The device can then be removed or used as a valve to measure the amount of flow from inside the pipe, much like a control valve. In the fluid handling industry, the device can be used with additional instrumentation as a variable area flow meter that can be set based upon flow conditions to enhance flow metering accuracy, control pressure losses, or control flow in a closed-loop feedback.

For more information, contact NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center at 256-544-5226 or learn more here .