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Crude oil spills are a major threat to marine biota and the environment. When light crude oil spills on water, it forms a thin layer that is difficult to clean by any methods of oil spill response. Under these circumstances, a special type of amphiphile termed as “chemical herder” is sprayed onto the water surrounding the spilled oil. The amphiphile forms a monomolecular layer on the water surface, reducing the air–sea surface tension and causing the oil slick to retract into a thick mass that can be burnt in situ. The current best-known chemical herders are chemically stable and nonbiodegradable, and hence remain in the marine ecosystem for years. We architect an eco-friendly, sacrificial, and effective green herder derived from the plant-based small-molecule phytol, which is abundant in the marine environment, as an alternative to the current chemical herders. Phytol consists of a regularly branched chain of isoprene units that form the hydrophobe of the amphiphile; the chain is esterified to cationic groups to form the polar group. The ester linkage is proximal to an allyl bond in phytol, which facilitates the hydrolysis of the amphiphile after adsorption to the sea surface into the phytol hydrophobic tail, which along with the unhydrolyzed herder, remains on the surface to maintain herding action, and the cationic group, which dissolves into the water column. Eventual degradation of the phytol tail and dilution of the cation make these sacrificial amphiphiles eco-friendly. The herding behavior of phytol-based amphiphiles is evaluated as a function of time, temperature, and water salinity to examine their versatility under different conditions, ranging from ice-cold water to hot water. The green chemical herder retracted oil slicks by up to ~500, 700, and 2500% at 5°, 20°, and 35°C, respectively, during the first 10 min of the experiment, which is on a par with the current best chemical herders in practice.


This article was originally published in Science Advances, available at DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1400265 .

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial license (CC BY-NC 4.0).



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