While the world waits to see if a "top kill" operation can seal off the devastating Deepwater Horizon oil leak in the Gulf, the staggering proposition of dealing with the more than 11 million gallons of crude spilled to date remains. To combat the massive slick, BP's primary weapon is chemical oil dispersant. The company has already used an unprecedented amount of dispersant—over 840,000 gallons—and is poised to deploy more.
So what exactly does oil dispersant do?
The good news, if there is any, is that crude oil in itself is largely biodegradable. It is made of dinosaurs, after all, and naturally occurring bacteria and other underwater microorganisms will feed on crude oil and break it down. The trouble (beyond the devastating effects of 11 million gallons) is that oil's cohesive properties—the same qualities that make oil-coated measuring cups a pain to wash—mean a vast oil slick like the one currently blanketing the Gulf presents very little molecular surface area to the bacteria that would take it down.
The primary natural force behind the breakdown of a large oil slick is turbulence, dispersant or no. In a sink full of water, swishing that oily measuring cup vigorously gets more oil off than gently gliding it around. But if you add a bit of soap, the measuring-cup cleanup is even easier. Oil dispersant is that dish soap, lowering the tension between oil and water and allowing small droplets of oil to break away from the larger clumps.
Corexit, the dispersant BP is currently using, contains six chemicals. The exact recipe is a secret, according to Corexit's manufacturer, Nalco, but it contains a surfactant and a solvent. Surfactants are long molecules that are hydrophilic (water-seeking) on one end and oleophilic (oil-seeking) on the other. One end grabs an oil molecule, the other, a water molecule. By reaching across the oil-water boundary, the surfactant lowers the tension that keeps the two substances separate.
A single blob of oil, mixed with dispersant, breaks up in a turbulent flow. The original glob is about a millimeter across. The video comes from a study in the February issue of Physical Review Letters, and appears courtesy of the researchers, Balaji Gopalan and Joseph Katz.
Smaller, dispersed droplets are less threatening for two reasons: they present more surface area to the water, so ocean bacteria can degrade the oil faster; plus, the small droplets are much slower to rise to the surface, keeping the oil at sea instead of in coastal wetlands and giving the bacteria more time to do their magic.
But natural turbulence is key: in calm water, the dispersant won't help much, just as the measuring cup resting at the bottom of the soapy sink won't clean itself. So in tranquil waters, cleanup crews must turn to other methods, like absorbent booms and controlled burns. Those techniques are being used along the shore. Most of the Gulf of Mexico isn't particularly calm at the moment—hurricane season begins on June 1, after all—so for the time being, dispersants are the better choice away from shore.
After the dispersant is applied, the tiny droplets of oil follow the water currents in underwater plumes. Keeping that oil away from coastal wetlands is good, but what about ocean life that's further afield, like corals and oysters? BP and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are monitoring the offshore conditions, which is the best they can do right now.
Dispersants have never been applied on this scale, leaving environmental scientists guessing about the consequences. Corexit may have caused seven cleanup workers to be admitted to the hospital with shortness of breath and nausea. Last week, the EPA requested that BP switch dispersants because of toxicity issues, though BP responded that Corexit was not as harmful as the EPA claimed. As of this writing, BP is compromising by using Corexit only under water, rather than on the surface. The underwater application means the dispersant can be used at a lower concentration, in a oil-to-dispersant ratio of 50-to-1.
Besides the issues surrounding Corexit itself, environmental scientists also don't know what the long-term effects of dispersed oil will be. BP and NOAA are monitoring the dispersed oil closely. In the meantime, they have their fingers crossed that the dispersant at least prevents the oil from washing ashore, where it mucks up delicate coastal ecosystems. "It's the lesser of all the evils," said Nancy Kinner, co-director of the Coastal Response Research Center, speaking by phone from the New Orleans airport.
No solution is ideal, and at the moment, environmental scientists think dispersants are the best option. Kinner just finished two days at a meeting of government officials and scientists from the EPA, the NOAA, the Coast Guard, and researchers from Canada and Norway. Among the 50 or so assembled there, she said, the strong consensus was that for this oil spill, underwater dispersants are the right choice. "It's the tool in the toolbox that has to be used to keep the oil out of the sensitive wetlands and out of the near-shore coastal habitats," she said.
What a crazy situation... I guess only time will tell the real consequences of the oil spill and the solutions used.
Sounds to me like its not working at all on the Gulf spill.
Just Crazy. Hop they will get it fixed
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For some reason, this gives me the feeling that I might get to see The-Cat-In-The-Hat effect.
Dear Katie Peek, you said that crude oil "is made of dinosaurs, after all". Not an expert myself but I understand that its "a fossil fuel derived from ancient fossilized organic materials." And yes, many dinosaurs included.
to stop the oil leak...drill a relief valve with a shutoff switch into the undamaged portion of the pipe and vent the oil out of that, making it easy to weld a huge piece of metal onto the broken end of the pipe (thus sealing it), then close the relief valve.
i have a better idea than the one i posted above, i hope nobody does this!!!!!!!!! i'm making a pictorial and/or movie hopefully, so keep thinking, we can solve this
I think that here the advancement in genetics and micro biology could help. Why not create a bacteria that could consume the oil from the water and because it is isolated by water these bacteria would eventually die after they have consumed all the oil. We need more and more attention these days with everything we do because we begun to manipulate everything on a gigantic scale which can perturb local ecosystems and even the entire planet.Purifying Technologies
Great so we are just twisting the proverbial knife now the oil Has already Fukked over so many species of animals now were going to poison the underwater species as well?? This is sickening just plain disgusting.
Have they ever tried lecithin? It's a natural food product used in a lot of commercial foods as an emulsifier.
So try Dawn dish liquid it works best on grease.
Above was a joke about a not so funny situation.
Actually what would do the trick if turbulence is needed would be to mount large centrifuges on a ship, have a pump with a hose going down to the oil coming out in ocean floor pump the water and oil mixture up to the centrifuges add the dispersants to the waste water coming out of centrifuge the crude could be pump directly into tankers from the centrifuge.
Anyone thought of releasing the Corexit at the well-head? Perhaps run a pipe down to the pipe and release the solvent/surficant/bacterial-cocktail at its point of origin.
Just a thought.
Further I was wondering why they haven't tried to drill a well parrallel to the current one but after 100ft or so cut over to the broken line and then pump in explosives or rubber or "Great Stuff" or something that expands on contact with petrochemicals.
Also has anyone read "Ill Wind" good novel creepy similarities.
Nalco, the company that makes Corexit, has been thriving for may years. They only exist because offshore oil drilling is inherently unsafe. How can we believe the oil companies when they assure us that they will operate safely in the future?
They should try pouring fresh oil, like the kind cars use, in front of the path of the oil leaking out...
I mean, that's what we do with forest fires, right?
Fight fire with fire?
I say pour more oil in front of it to stop the oil coming out.
> mount large centrifuges on a ship, have a pump with a
> hose going down to the oil coming out in ocean floor
> pump the water and oil mixture up to the centrifuges
Uh, that's exactly what they have been doing, LOL!
> add the dispersants to the waste water coming out of
There'd be no need IF the centrifuge is working properly, because all the oil should be removed. There would be lighter-than-water byproduct exiting with the water, however (perhaps "gas" - what people call the "sheen"), and I do not think dispersants work on that.. it just evaporates.
Good article. Read more about the Deepwater Horizon accident on Encyclopedia of Earth:
I think using dispersants was the wrong decision. They make the oil soluble in water and cause the oil to spread throughout the region.
When I worked at GM, the folks who worked in the waste treatment department would use floculants to help bring the oil together and make it easier to get the oil out. They made it MORE oily by attracting short chain oils, like gasoline, to very long chain non-polar polymers.
We also used a product in our coolant systems (coolants were basically soaps) that had essentially a long plastic rope with strings of plastic that the oil (contaminate) would stick to. We could continuously pull it out and squeegee the oil into a container.
Interestingly, the oil that was in our systems primarily came from two sources: oil leaks, and biodegraded coolant. When the coolant (basically oil plus emulsifier) biodegraded, we found the microorganisms were primarily consuming the polar component of the emulsifier. The oil portion of the emulsifier then added to the total oil that had been emulsified.
Now I know that there are supposed to be enzymes that break down oil, if mixed in a water environment, but do they function in the ocean's environment? So, I guess my question is, did anyone bother to test this dispersant hypothesis in a lab or did they just get an idea and run with it?
The normal way would have been to first remove as much oil and gas as possible. Then try to biodegrade what was left that was seemingly impossible to remove.
Thank God there is a God who can save us from our mistakes. I think we need to pray for His help.
Dear God P L E A S E H E L P
Henry3: Sometimes I also wonder if they ever bothered to test these procedures prior to implementing them. You obviously know what you're talking about when it comes to oil. I just don't know if the same "rules" apply to the Gulf as they do to automobiles.
-- But nevertheless, something needs to be done and I think the only thing the public can do is be supportive of any and all attempts every organization/company is making to combat this horrific situation.
Poor little animals =(
A few of the replies indicate that we should simply PLUG the leak at the well head with something. If you research deep water drilling and the release of oil at those depths, you will learn that deep water wells such as the Horizon well are spewing oil and natural gas at rates up to 9000 PSI. At that pressure, simply trying to plug a hole with a cork would be like trying to plug a jet engine with marshmallows. It may look good on paper, but it will create a bigger mess and never work.
The ultimate fix will be the intersecting relief wells that are being drilled. Once the drills punch into the current well, heavy cement will be pumped into the well shaft and fill it full from bottom to top. Cement is the most viable solution, but unfortunately it must be pumped in from the bottom up to work correctly. In the mean time, we watch the chemicals flow and the ocean die a little more.
Oh, my . . . not the dinosaur myth! Not in Popular Science! Mark Grossman tried to excuse the comment by saying "many dinosaurs included" but that is not even true. Wiki-pedia says, "Today's oil formed from the preserved remains of prehistoric zooplankton and algae, which had settled to a sea or lake bottom in large quantities under anoxic conditions (the remains of prehistoric terrestrial plants, on the other hand, tended to form coal). Over geological time the organic matter mixed with mud, and was buried under heavy layers of sediment resulting in high levels of heat and pressure (diagenesis)."
It is highly rare that a dinosaur would be buried under anoxic conditions. If 1 one-trillionth of our oil comes from dinosaurs, it would be a surprise to most petroleum scientists (even the crazy abiogenic ones).
Baloney. Scientists know perfectly well that dispersants cause more problems in the long run after doing long term studies of oil spills. This gulf disaster is just another instance of the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing, and obviously very unscientific.
Surfactants are explained at the end of this video about ferrofluid:
Another large problem that often goes unnoticed is the negative effects dispersants have on birds.
Birds secrete natural oils from their body and need that oil on their feathers for them to keep dry and be able to fly. The dispersants used on the oil slick when in contact with birds disperses the natural oil on the birds feathers causing them to die of hypothermia or drowning.
Yes dispersant would not be good for birds but this is a 'lesser of the two evils' situation. By your own admission dispersant is used on oil slicks, not on clean water.. If not for the dispersant then the oil would sit in thick slicks on the surface and the birds would get covered in oil and would die a most horrible death.. We have all seen the awful pictures.
Latest news from the gulf: www.mwilliams.info/archive/2010/07/disappearing-gulf-oil.php indicates that the oil is disappearing remarkably quickly.. This must be at least in part thanks to dispersants. Are the anti-dispersant lobby seriously saying they would rather oil was still lapping up on the beaches and wet lands?