Bubble bursting as an aerosol generation mechanism during an oil spill in the deep-sea environment: laboratory experimental demonstration of the transport pathway

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Oil spills in the deep-sea environment such as the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico release vast quantities of crude oil into the sea-surface environment. Various investigators have discussed the marine transport and fate of the oil into different environmental compartments (air, water, sediment, and biota). The transport of the oil into the atmosphere in these previous investigations has been limited to only evaporation, a volatility dependent pathway. In this work, we studied the aerosolization of oil spill matter via bursting bubbles as they occur during whitecaps in a laboratory aerosolization reactor. By evaluating the alkane content in oil mousse, crude oil, the gas phase, and particulate matter we clearly demonstrate that aerosolization via bursting bubbles is a solubility and volatility independent transport pathway for alkanes. The signature of alkane fractions in the native oil and aerosolized matter matched well especially for the less volatile alkanes (C20-C29). Scanning electron microscope interfaced with energy dispersive X-ray images identified the carbon fractions associated with salt particles of aerosols. Theoretical molecular dynamics simulations in the accompanying paper lend support to the observed propensity for alkanes at air-salt water interfaces of breaking bubbles and the produced droplets. The presence of a dispersant in the aqueous phase increased the oil ejection rate at the surface especially for the C20-C29 alkanes. The information presented here emphasizes the need to further study sea-spray aerosols as a possible transport vector for spilled oil in the sea surface environment.

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Environmental science. Processes & impacts

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