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Top Story

Sunlight reduces effectiveness of dispersants used to clean up oil spills

A new study shows that sunlight transforms oil spills on the ocean surface more quickly and significantly than previously thought, limiting the effectiveness of chemical dispersants that break up floating oil. A research team funded by the National Science Foundation and led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution found that sunlight chemically alters crude oil floating on the sea surface within days or hours. The team reported that sunlight changes oil into different compounds that dispersants cannot easily break up. The findings could affect how responders decide when, where and how to use dispersants. Dispersants contain detergents, not unlike those people use to wash dishes, which help break oil into small droplets that are diluted in the ocean or are eaten by microbes before the oil can be swept to sensitive coastlines. But to do their work, the detergents (also known as surfactants) first need to mix with both the oil and water -- and oil and water, famously, don't mix. To overcome this barrier, dispersants contain an organic solvent that helps the oil, detergents and water mix. Only when this step happens can the surfactants do their work to break oil into droplets. But sunlight obstructs this step, the new study shows. The finding suggests that responders should factor in sunlight when determining the "window of opportunity" to use dispersants effectively. That window is far smaller on sunny days than previously thought.

Visit Website | Image credit: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution