INSIGHT: Surfactants versus Godzilla: attacking the oil spill

24 May 2010 17:37  [Source: ICIS news]

By Judith Taylor

Oil from Deepwater Horizon on Grand Isle LouisianaHOUSTON (ICIS news)--There is a Godzilla of an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and an army of surfactants are on the attack.

Godzilla is the giant pop culture monster known for emerging from the sea, borne of misfortune somewhere in the depths and ready to wreak havoc. 

Surfactant (surface active agent) is an industry term referring to a wide variety of soap and detergent products and additives, including many of the active chemicals used in dispersants.

An array of surfactants is being used in the Gulf to attack the spreading Godzilla-like oil slick and the black umbilical cord of crude oil that spews more than 5,000 bbls/day into the eleventh largest body of water on Earth. 

The oil leak began after the 20 April explosion of the BP-operated Deepwater Horizon rig, located approximately 40 miles off the coast of Louisiana.

With everything from rich coastal marshes and estuaries - breeding grounds and nurseries for numerous fish and crustaceans - to pristine beaches ripe for the summer tourist season all at risk from potential environmental insult by the oily slick, intervention with surfactant dispersants has been prompt and massive.

“There is a deep and solid resolve to contain this spill, to fight it offshore, to fight it at the shoreline, to clean it up, and to deal with the economic impact it has caused, and will cause,” BP America chairman and president Lamar McKay said in a recent response to questions from Senator Susan Collins (Republican, Maine), ranking minority member on the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

But the leak is approximately 5,000 ft - or about a mile - under water, which makes it an unprecedented challenge due not only to accessibility difficulties, but also to the cold temperatures (about 30 degrees Fahrenheit or about -1 degree Celsius) and pressures invoked by the depth.

When further questioned by the committee about an apparent absence in the company’s response plan for options specifically addressing potential drilling accidents below the surface in deep water, McKay said: “This is a unique and unprecedented event...there are no major regulations dealing with intervention plans”.

What to do: send out vast volumes of surfactant dispersants to emulsify the oil slick on top of the water and hopefully mitigate the daily spread of the oil slick toward delicate coastal lands.

Surfactants attack oil by reducing the surface tension of water through a chemical interaction that can include reduction of tension between oil and water.

They characteristically have lipophilic (oil-loving) and hydrophilic (water-loving) portions that serve as the working ‘tools’ of the surfactant molecules.

Dispersants, such as those being used to attack the oil spill, often consist of one or more surfactants in a suspension.

Chemicals that can be involved in surfactants and dispersants include fatty alcohols, fatty acids and certain types of amines, and some glycols. Formulations vary widely and most are proprietary to the producing company.

The purpose of the surfactant dispersants used in the Gulf spill is largely to break up the surface level oil slick so that it can be either dissipated into the vast water body, or rounded up in various manners for collection from the water. 

Keeping the oil slick from land is a primary goal in using the surfactants.

But some of the chemicals in dispersant formulations are now drawing scrutiny from environmental watchdogs and a few members of the academic community.

“There are a lot of different spins on it,” one industry player said.

Toxicity of the dispersants could become an issue, but at this time all options are being considered.

“They are throwing everything at it,” a surfactant supplier said.

Godzilla now seems to be wrestling the surfactant attackers to a tie at best and a loss at the worst, as Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal’s tour of Plaquemines Parish revealed last week.

“The oil is no longer just a projection or miles from our shore. The oil is here. It is on our shores and in our marsh.” Jindal said in a press conference following a boat tour of the parish. 

Options to surfactant dispersants are also being closely considered.

One Houston based bio-remediation company is on the cusp of providing such an option, offering up microbial attackers to add-to or possibly replace the surfactants.

The bioremediation agents under consideration are “much less toxic” than the “petroleum hydrocarbon solvents” now being used, according to one source.

Whether microbial bio-remediation will be brought in to take on the Godzilla oil slick and its crude oil mother-plume is uncertain.

“It is up to the president of BP,” a source close to the situation said.

To discuss issues facing the chemical industry go to ICIS connect


By: Judith Taylor
+1 713 525 2653



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