Cambridge, Massachusetts – Researchers may be able to predict oil-spilling fractures in pipelines using computer programs meant for auto crash tests, according to a new report from MIT’s Impact and Crashworthiness Laboratory.

The computer model tests automobile components for crashworthiness. Researchers at MIT are now using their simulations of material deformation in car crashes to predict how pipes may fracture in offshore drilling accidents.

As a case study, the team simulated the forces involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico and found that their model accurately predicted the location and propagation of cracks in the oil rig’s drill riser, a portion of the pipe connecting the surface drilling platform to the sea floor. In a side-by-side comparison, the model’s reconstruction closely resembled an image of the actual fractured pipe taken by a remotely-operated vehicle after the accident occurred.

“We are looking at what would happen during a severe accident, and we’re trying to determine what should be the material that would not fail under those conditions,” said Tomasz Wierzbicki, professor of applied mechanics at MIT. “For that, you need technology to predict the limits of a material’s behaviour.”

Wierzbicki said that while it is unlikely that any pipe material could have remained intact during the Deepwater Horizon disaster, there are many improvements that can be made to shore up existing oil and gas pipelines. He and his group, whose research is partly sponsored by Royal Dutch Shell, will be analyzing samples from retired offshore pipes for the next few months.

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