What is a Dispersant?

BP is currently using dispersant to control the oil in the gulf. A dispersant is basically a fancy word for soap. Formally, it is called surfactant. These chemicals are useful because of oil’s surface tension. The oil wants to reduce the surface area as much as possible because its molecules want to be near each other. This is due to the forces between each molecule (molecules at the surface interact with less of the same molecules, which is avoided by reducing the surface area). By interrupting the intermolecular forces, the dispersant reduces the surface tension. This wouldn’t matter if the blob of oil was in space, with no forces acting on it, but the surface tension is reduced to the point the waves can break up the blob. two blobs have more surface area then one blob, allowing the oil eating bacteria Pseudomonas putida more room to enjoy the huge meal.

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