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Pure Appl. Chem., 1999, Vol. 71, No. 1, pp. 27-42

Oil Spill Dispersants

Robert J. Fiocco1 and Alun Lewis2

1 Summit, New Jersey U.S.A.
2 AEA Technology, Culham, Oxfordshire U. K.

Introduction: The purpose of any oil spill response is to minimise the damage that could be caused by the spill. Dispersants are one of the limited number of practical responses that are available to respond to oil spills at sea.
When oil is spilled at sea, a small proportion will be naturally dispersed by the mixing action caused by waves. This process can be slow and proceed to only a limited extent for most situations. Dispersants are used to accelerate the removal of oil from the surface of the sea by greatly enhancing the rate of natural dispersion of oil and thus prevent it from coming ashore. Dispersed oil will also be more rapidly biodegraded by naturally occurring microorganisms. The rationale for dispersant use is that dispersed oil is likely to have less overall environmental impact than oil that persists on the surface of the sea, drifts and eventually contaminates the shoreline.
The development of modern dispersants began after the Torrey Canyon oil spill in 1967. Many lessons have been learned since that spill, and consequently the modern dispersants and application techniques in use today have become an effective way of responding to an oil spill. For example, the dispersant response to the Sea Empress spill in 1996 demonstrated that dispersants can be very effective and prevent a much greater amount of environmental damage from being caused (6).
This chapter describes the chemistry and physics of dispersants, planning and decision-making considerations, and finally their practical application and operational use in oil spill response.