Cover Story: Oil containment inventor

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - As soon as this weekend, the entire world could be focused on whether a Charlotte man's invention can contain that massive oil spill going on in the Gulf of Mexico.

Since this morning, another 200,000 gallons of oil have gushed into those waters, some 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana.

Here in the Queen City, the inventor's name isn't synonymous with oil cleanup.  We know him for spear-heading an arts and entertainment complex called the North Carolina Music Factory north of Center City.

Rick Lazes never set out to be an inventor.  He was promoting a Ike and Tina Turner concert in New Orleans two decades ago when a friend came to him and said they were having trouble collecting oil from the Exxon Valdez tanker that ran aground.

What do they say necessity is the mother of invention?

It's a side of Rick Lazes most people didn't know existed.

The man who helped put the North Carolina Music Factory on the map, where we met him on Wednesday, is also an inventor.

"My inventions are pretty low tech. I'm not a sophisticated engineer."

But what he came up with 20 years ago may help save the Gulf now from an ecological disaster.

"It's pretty become the standard worldwide for rapid deployment oil boom," he said.

Lazes invented (and he showed us the patent) the automatic inflating oil boom.

It was first used in Prince William Sound, Alaska after the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground in March of 1989.

Prior to his invention oil booms were made of foam and hard to handle.

His can lay flat on a reel, rolls out up to a mile and fills up with air as it's deployed.

It's the booms they're using to contain the oil from the Deepwater Horizon.

But he hasn't stopped there.

Right now, in a Charlotte warehouse near his Music Factory, local steel fabricators are building Lazes' next generation oil booms.  It looks like a big orange cone, something he's calling the Sub Sea Oil Collector.  It's known by its acronym as SSOC.

"A pipe is lowered on a cable to the bottom of the ocean where the oil is leaking.. filled with oil floats up into a bag."

The concept is so simple he has drawings on the floor of the shop.  The SSOC lowered to the sea floor where the oil's coming from and since it's lighter than water, "The oil floats up into it.. like an umbrella," he says.

British Petroleum, the operator of the Deepwater Horizon, already has one of the Sub Sea Oil Collectors and could deploy it this weekend.

Lazes is making another as a standby.

"What's your gut telling you about this? My instinct is the worst is over."

But if things gets worse, Lazes wants them to have another tool in their tool box.

Using a patent, he's building an aircraft spraying conversion kit.  He's taken two huge pipes.  The plan is to put them in a cargo plane and in no time you can turn an ordinary 727 into a aerial tanker.  Any number of planes then could help crews spray dispersant to diffuse the oil sheen in the Gulf.

"I like building stuff," he said.  "It's nice to be able to protect the environment and help people in the process."

Lazes' inventions are just part of the strategy that's being used to try to keep the spill from getting worse.  They're deploying containment booms, oil is being set on fire.. and dispersant (which is like a soapy mixture) is being dropped.

At the leak itself they're preparing to lower a massive coffer dam.  That could happen Thursday or Friday.

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