Louisiana researchers are getting the lion's share of $10.8 million of BP oil settlement money to figure out ways to make offshore drilling safer and prevent disasters like the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill.

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine announced the distribution of the $10.8 million in awards on Thursday, with LSU engineering professor Wesley Williams claiming the largest share.

His $4.9 million project will study how to prevent oil rigs from accidentally tapping into underground pockets of natural gas. When the flammable gas gets into the pipes, it expands and can blow out the top, which may cause an explosion — the very thing that happened in the Deepwater incident, Williams said.

To protect the environment and the safety of workers, scientists want to figure out how to determine where natural gas pockets are and how to gradually release the gas. That way, Williams said, it can be flared off harmlessly instead of blowing up in an "uncontrolled explosion."

The university operates a mile deep test and training well at the Petroleum Engineering Research & Technology Transfer Lab near Alex Box Stadium. The equipment makes LSU uniquely positioned to undertake this type of study, Williams said. Researchers will inject controlled amounts of gas and fluids at the PERTT test site to study how to safely extract the liquids without causing dangerous gas leaks, he continued.

"It's a big issue for industry. ... We've been asked to do this kind of test multiple times from industry," the professor said.

While LSU is taking the lead on the study, they'll be joined by researchers from Texas A&M University and the energy company Weatherford.

The new projects are funded through the National Academies' Gulf Research Program, which received $500 million in legal payouts from BP and Transocean following the Deepwater Horizon spill.

The funds, which will be distributed over the course of 30 years until 2043, are to be used to study natural sciences, social sciences, engineering and health issues related to the Gulf.

Another LSU-led team received $2.6 million Thursday to figure out how best to stopper unused wells to prevent them from leaking.

"The project will develop and test new materials to improve or replace current materials used in the plugging and abandonment of wells and develop new methods for placing such materials," the National Academies wrote in a news release.

Other teams in Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and Mississippi will research how to detect underground gas, investigate how oil and gas workers communicate in high-stress situations, improve monitoring to detect spills faster and consider how to strengthen cement mixtures to minimize leaks.

"The greatest risk in offshore oil and gas operations is the uncontrolled release of hydrocarbons and the threats such events pose to human health and safety, the environment and infrastructure, as evidenced by the Deepwater Horizon disaster," the National Academies wrote in the news release.

"Comprehensive awareness of the systemic vulnerabilities that can lead to uncontrolled hydrocarbon release during drilling, production or decommissioning activities of offshore oil and gas operations is essential to reducing existing risks and anticipating and avoiding new ones."

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