Full Chisel Blog

May 24, 2010

Oil & Water

Filed under: Historical Material,Nautical,Of Interest,Uncategorized — Stephen Shepherd @ 6:59 pm


I am sorry for my late response to this timely issue, but better late than never.  The recent problem that has surfaced has prompted me to consider a solution.  Now I know nothing about the depths of the problem except the enormous pressure and temperatures that things don’t Behave Properly.

Since I cannot add to the technical problem they face, except did I mention the high pressure and cold temperature?  I do have some suggestions as to how to deal with the problem on the surface of the water in the Gulf.  For one and many of you may know this, Oil and Water don’t mix.  And oil by its self is fairly nasty stuff, useful but nasty.  It kills a lot of things from contact in a crude form, as refined products, etc., etc.  But did I mention it was useful, I like Asphaltum for making varnish and people are fond of Gasoline.

But I digress; a solution for the problem would be to deal with the problem that Oil and Water don’t mix.  Oil is lighter in molecular weight that Water, so oil conveniently floats on water.  If it were lighter than water it wouldn’t be a good hydrocarbon.  But I digress, how would a chef make an oil and vinegar salad dressing mix, he would add an emulsifier to make them mix together, mustard, egg yolks, soy, etc., there a number of ingredients that will do the same thing.

Or you could add surfactants, a fancy word meaning a surface reactant that is basically a soap that will cause the oil to break up into smaller little spheres of oil that will settle out of the water.  But the oil is still there.  Remember you can clean oil paint out of your brushes with soap and water, but the oil does go down the drain in suspension with water.

So how does one get rid of a lot of oil, I would suggest wood ashes.  When mixed with water and oil they become soap.  It is a simple soponification process that has been known for centuries. And soap is far less dangerous than crude oil.

Now here is an interesting bit of history, when ships were at sea and the weather was turning bad and the waves were increasing; they would put an oil soaked rope into the water to trail behind the ship and it would break the surface tension of the water and reduce the possibility of waves breaking over the stern of the ship.  Buckets of oil were placed on both sides of the bow at water line to help eliminate waves around the ship.  The oil would calm the sea.



  1. I am not too sure about the structure of the main components of crude oil, but the saponification process would only work if the oil is largely comprised of hydrocarbon chains containing carboxylic acids and/or esters. If crude oil could be saponified, I think there are major logistical issue related to maintaining a high pH (in the ocean), long enough to promote the saponification process. I think the peristence of crude oil in the environment suggests that it is a totally different beast from the plant-derived oils.

    Comment by Steve Kirincich — May 24, 2010 @ 8:25 pm

  2. Petroleum as a general rule does not saponify. Soap makers will use mineral oil or Vaseline to line molds and such for just that reason. The Fells naphtha soap had claimed to be able to incorporate the petroleum distillate (naphtha) into the soap, but that particular soap used mostly “Rosin” as the main “saponifiable” in addition to both Lye in sodium and potassium form as well as lime. You can look up the patent and other discussions on the matter.

    Comment by Absinthe — March 19, 2012 @ 11:00 am

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