Bubble bursting as an aerosol generation mechanism during an oil spill in the deep-sea environment: molecular dynamics simulations of oil alkanes and dispersants in atmospheric air/salt water interfaces

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Potential of mean force (PMF) calculations and molecular dynamics (MD) simulations were performed to investigate the properties of oil n-alkanes [i.e., n-pentadecane (C15), n-icosane (C20) and n-triacontane (C30)], as well as several surfactant species [i.e., the standard anionic surfactant sodium dodecyl sulfate (SDS), and three model dispersants similar to the Tween and Span species present in Corexit 9500A] at air/salt water interfaces. This study was motivated by the 2010 Deepwater Horizon (DWH) oil spill, and our simulation results show that, from the thermodynamic point of view, the n-alkanes and the model dispersants have a strong preference to remain at the air/salt water interface, as indicated by the presence of deep free energy minima at these interfaces. The free energy minimum of these n-alkanes becomes deeper as their chain length increases, and as the concentration of surfactant species at the interface increases. The n-alkanes tend to adopt a flat orientation and form aggregates at the bare air/salt water interface. When this interface is coated with surfactants, the n-alkanes tend to adopt more tilted orientations with respect to the vector normal to the interface. These simulation results are consistent with the experimental findings reported in the accompanying paper [Ehrenhauser et al., Environ. Sci.: Processes Impacts 2013, in press, (DOI: 10.1039/c3em00390f)]. The fact that these long-chain n-alkanes show a strong thermodynamic preference to remain at the air/salt water interfaces, especially if these interfaces are coated with surfactants, makes these species very likely to adsorb at the surface of bubbles or droplets and be ejected to the atmosphere by sea surface processes such as whitecaps (breaking waves) and bubble bursting. Finally, the experimental finding that more oil hydrocarbons are ejected when Corexit 9500A is present in the system is consistent with the deeper free energy minima observed for the n-alkanes at the air/salt water interface at increasing concentrations of surfactant species.

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Environmental science. Processes & impacts

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