Gulf Clean-up: Breaking down oil with surfactants

Cleantech Chemistry will save for later the discussion of whether the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico will put more attention on replacing petroleum in the U.S. economy. But in the meantime it is interesting to note the contribution that chemistry is making to clean-up efforts.

Water treatment firm Nalco released a statement confirming that it is supplying quantities of oil dispersants for the Gulf operation, but did not elaborate on how much of it the company was selling. Nevertheless, the announcement prompted Nalco’s stock to rise 18% to $29.25, hitting its highest point since October 2007. In the press release, Nalco thanks its suppliers for stepping up to the plate, which suggests the company is selling its dispersant as fast as it can be manufactured.

Though Nalco has not yet responded to a request for an interview, the company’s website describes its Corexit dispersant technology as designed specifically to protect and clean shorelines affected by oil spills at sea. The product is made with bio-degradable surfactants in a low-toxicity, de-aromatized hydrocarbon solvent system.

If the chemical dispersant works as designed, the solvent system distributes the surfactants into the oil slick. Then the surfactants go to work reducing the surface tension at the oil/water interface. With the oil film’s cohesion lessened, the action of the waves helps to break up the slick into small droplets of oil. The small drops sink from the surface of the sea and are further degraded by the ocean’s native bacteria.

BP CEO Tony Hayward has been reported as claiming the dispersants have had a significant impact keeping the oil from floating to the surface, but there is very little detail available about how successful the chemical treatment has been so far.

In addition to  Nalco, other producers of dispersants include BP, Croda, Dasic International, INEOS Chemical, Shell, Taiho, Total, and U.S. Polychemical, writes Laurence Alexander, chemicals analyst at Jefferies & Company. Alexander has been tracking reports that the operation is requiring around 10,000 gallons of dispersants a day.

Author: Melody Bomgardner

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4 Comments

  1. I believe your right. They know there’s oil there, and they’ll justify it by saying: How can you expect us to undergo all this cost if we can’t recoup some of our loses. Whatever the current fines may be, double them-at the very least-, and no more dithering on settlements to the lives and livelihoods disrupted.

  2. BP is literally banking on our “gnat-sized” attention spans and our understandable crisis fatigue to let them get away virtually scot free from any responsibility, whether financial or moral, for this massive, man made disaster. They continue to inhibit the flow of accurate information about what has and what is currently happening in the Gulf, they continue to destroy and hide evidence of their culpability, buying scientists, lawyers and politicians, even reporters. Media outlets want us to believe that the oil is largely gone or missing somehow. It may not be as visible now in some areas, but it is there continuing to suck oxygen from the water, causing huge “dead zones” — worse, the toxic dispersants used, largely against recommendations, are there too, making the oil even more dangerous. Please do not buy the media line and assume that soon the crisis will be past. Don’t let BP or Congress off the hook. They could be the only creatures on the hook in large portions of the gulf right now!

  3. The spin machine already has most of the oil GONE; fishing is back, the tourist industry is saved….most people are willing to accept the lies from EPA and NOAA, the US Coast Guard, and of course BP…..