Saturday, April 11, 2015

What is a Surfactant?

"Think laundry detergent, dish soap."

A mysterious Grey Goo killed or injured five hundred beautiful seabirds in early 2015, many of them from the north on their annual migratory stopover .My research suggests the goo is an emulsion or colloidal suspension* created by the use of an industrial surfactant in Alameda's aging finger lagoons to clarify the water after dredging.

SURFace, ACTive and AgeNT
The term "surfactant" comes from the words, SURFace, ACTive and AgeNT. A surfactant is a chemical substance, usually a liquid, that, among other things, changes the surface tension of water. Common examples would be laundry detergent and household dish-washing soap, which emulsify oils and fats so they can be carried away down the drain.

Surfactants are used in some municipal sewage plants to clarify contaminated water. Surfactants can be used in oil spill clean-up. Oil and water do not mix, but oil can be emulsified by adding a surfactant. It's similar to dunking a greasy skillet into soapy dishwater. Emulsification occurs when surfactant molecules break the oil (or grease) into tiny particles by tightly surrounding them.

A foaming industrial surfactant uses a chemical binding process called "ionic attraction" to attach in a similar way to particles suspended in dirty water. The remaining emulsion or colloidal suspension* can then be skimmed off.
Water Treatment Skimmer

Drill-down with Google Maps on a sewage treatment plant. Those open round vessels with arms extending across are skimmers. (See example at left.)
In the photo at right, it looks as if the lagoons have been turned itno a gigantic laundry tub.

The grey areas (see arrows) denote interaction of the foam with targeted particles (contaminants) stirred up by dredging. This grey material, technically an emulsion or colloidal suspension, is what I suspect to be the bird-killing Grey Mystery Goo reported in the news.

If I am right, the Mystery Goo is essentially an emulsion or colloidal suspension* created by interaction between an industrial surfactant and the contaminants (dissolved and undissolved solids) clouding the water due to the mechanical disturbance of dredging.

The contaminants could also include drilling mud (a fluid used in earth-boring), a form of which was found to match the laboratory analysis of the Bird Goo.

Harmless, but Lethal
Most surfactants are normally harmless to humans, but they can be lethal to waterfowl, especially when dosed repeatedly (See "Continuing Evidence of a Lethal Surfactant" ), because they cut through (emulsify) natural body oils that allow feathers to insulate them from the cold.

When those natural oils are stripped away, the birds die of hypothermia. It is a slow, hideous way to die because of the lengthy suffering it entails.

The chemical properties of a surfactant make it the ultimate toxin in a marine environment because surfactant molecules seek always to get between water and on-aqueous matter. Since essentially no marine life or habitat can escape a surfactant, its killing power is incalculable.

The world's favorite emulsion is ice cream. This was not ice cream.

Breaking News:
It is revealed in an April 19 blog post here that the Goo matches a viscous solution used in well-drilling generically called "drilling mud." (Click here to read the blog about drilling mud matching the Goo 100%.) The drilling mud and the surfactant are comprised 80% of matching materials (tung oil, seed oil, animal fats and silicone.) A foaming agent would emulsify the surfactant and drilling mud, creating a sludge that would float through the lagoon portal out into San Francisco Bay.

Below are several web links to sites that explain surfactants and the process of emulsification.

Web Sites: 
Key Center for Polymer Colloids

Youtube Videos:
"32-6 surfactant energy...":

"What are emulsions":

"Surfactant. How does a Surfactant Work?"

"How Surfactants Help You Clean":

"Warning: Dispersant/surfactant eats through...":

*Wikipedia: "An emulsion is a mixture of two or more liquids that are normally immiscible (unmixable or unblendable) ...colloid is a substance in which microscopically dispersed insoluble particles are suspended throughout another substance.Sometimes the dispersed substance alone is called the colloid;[1] the term colloidal suspension refers unambiguously to the overall mixture,,."

"A foaming agent is a material that facilitates formation of foam such as a surfactant or a blowing agent. A surfactant, when present in small amounts, reduces surface tension of a liquid (reduces the work needed to create the foam) or increases its colloidal stability by inhibiting coalescence of bubbles."

Other References:
Bätje, M., and H. Michaelis. 1986. Phaeocystis pouchetii blooms in the East Frisian coastal waters (German Bight, North Sea). Marine Biology 93:21-27.
Courtemanch, D. 2004. Foam—A cause for concern?

Eckhardt, B.W., and T.R. Moore. 1990. Controls on dissolved organic carbon concentrations in streams, southern Quebec. Can. J. Fish. Aquat. Sci. 47:1537-1544.

Fact Sheet: Foam. 2004. Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Office of Water Quality Assessment Branch.

Fendinger, J.J., D.J. Versteeg, E Weeg, S. Dyer, and R.A. Rapaport. 1994. Environmental behavior and fate of anionic surfactants. In, Environmental Chemistry of Lakes and Reservoirs, L.A. Baker (ed.). American Chemical Society, Washington D.C.

Fuller, D. 2003. The occurrence of foam on lakes and streams. Great Lakes Environmental Directory, 394 Lake Ave. S. Suite #222, Duluth, MN 55802.

Gergel, S.E., M.G. Turner, and T. K. Kratz. 1999. Dissolved organic carbon as an indicator of the scale of watershed influence on Lakes and Rivers. Ecological Applications 9:1377-1390.

Maryland Department of Natural Resources. 2004. Harmful Algae Blooms in Maryland.

Wegner, C., and M. Haburger. 2002. Occurrence of stable foam in the Upper Rhine River caused by plant-derived surfactants. Environmental Science and Technology 36:3250-3256.

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