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Chemistry of Compounds

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Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

License: CC BY-NC 3.0

Oil and water don’t mix. In fact, oil floats on water. This makes breaking up the oil in a big oil spill hard to do. The oil in this photo has been “corralled” by hose-like booms. Now the oil must be broken up into droplets. If the droplets can disperse through the water, they will eventually break down.

Why It Matters

  • On April 20, 2010, the largest oil spill in U.S. history began. British Petroleum’s (BP’s) Deepwater Horizon oil well in the Gulf of Mexico started leaking. It continued to leak for 87 days until the well was finally plugged. During that time, it leaked a total of 4.9 billion barrels of oil into the Gulf.
  • Countless numbers of birds and other organisms were covered with oil or harmed by its toxic effects. The local economy was devastated.
  • BP sprayed a chemical compound called a dispersant on the oil. Like dish detergent, the dispersant helped to break up the oil. However, it didn’t prevent the oil from sticking to things, such as bird feathers. The dispersant was also toxic. It had been shown to cause genetic mutations and cancers in living things. The combination of dispersant and oil was later shown to be 52 times more toxic than the oil alone!
  • Images of oil-covered birds inspired two researchers at the University of Mississippito do something to help. But they weren’t biologists. They were physical scientists. Their goal was to invent a new dispersant, one that was nontoxic and would also prevent oil from sticking to things like bird feathers. Do you think they were successful? Watch this video to find out: http://www.nbclearn.com/chemistrynow/cuecard/54567

Show What You Know

Learn more about dispersants at the links below. Then answer the questions that follow.

  1. Why does breaking up an oil spill into tiny droplets help to clean it up?
  2. The new dispersant developed by the researchers is a polymer. What is a polymer?
  3. What properties did the new dispersant molecule need in order to do what the researchers hoped?
  4. What organic compound was the basis of the new dispersant? Why did the researchers think it would be nontoxic?
  5. How did the researchers test their new dispersant? Describe their experiment, and identify variables and controls.
  6. What were the results of the experiment to test the new dispersant?

Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ License: CC BY-NC 3.0


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