Chocolate mousse: Recipe for disaster
- May 7, 2010 12:48 PM |
- By Quirks
By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks.
Have you noticed how the oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico has a red colour to it? That's not a problem with the television cameras; it's a mixture of oil, water and air, known as chocolate mousse, which will soon become the real mess for the environment.
Crude oil straight out of the ground is a complex mixture of substances, ranging from lighter gasoline and diesel to heavy tar. At first, the oil sits on the surface of the water because of the light elements, so it can be surrounded by containment booms, skimmed off or even burned. But as the lighter material evaporates, the oil becomes heavier and more difficult to deal with.
If the wind picks up, waves mix the oil with sea water, creating the mousse, which is heavier still and less able to remain on the surface. Eventually, the mousse behaves like a submarine, floating just beneath the waves, out of reach by recovery ships. It can remain in this form for months, ducking under floating booms and reaching shorelines. Or it can continue drifting on ocean currents until it sinks to the bottom. In either case, the results are not good.
To get an idea of how difficult it is to clean up oil mousse, here is a recipe for making some in your kitchen.
Oil mousse is toxic to marine life. When it gets into marsh areas, such as the Mississippi Delta, it sticks to plant stems, fouls spawning areas and coats bird feathers. In some cases, the oil creates dead zones where animals just don't bother going back to. On the sea floor, mousse affects shrimp, oysters, crabs and all the other critters that live on the bottom.
Chemical dispersants that are sprayed on mouse to get rid of it actually break it into smaller drops that sink more quickly. The oil doesn't really go away; it's just more evenly distributed on the ocean floor. Those chemicals are also toxic to coral reefs.
Ultimately, after it's been weathered and degraded further, spilled oil ends up as tar balls.
These black blobs can become covered in beach sand and usually end up stuck to the bottom of your flip flops or make your white shorts look like you have a problem with incontinence. Tar balls can last for years.
Fortunately, the ocean has ways of dealing with oil. Microbes in the water actually eat hydrocarbons, turning them into carbon dioxide and water. Those microbes exist because oil has been a natural part of the ocean environment for millions of years. Natural oil seeps on the ocean floor account for almost half of all the oil that ends up in our oceans every year, which becomes food for the microbes. That's the good news. When left alone, the ocean can clean up spilled oil.
The problem is that we have increased the concentration of oil in seawater with drilling operations, shipping, as well as a major contribution from oil that drips out of our leaky machinery on land, and then gets washed into the sea by rain.
As oil spills go, the Gulf of Mexico is not the largest, but it is one of the most visible because of media coverage, and could end up as one of the most expensive because of the economic impact on the huge population living along the Gulf Coast.
Hopefully, that visibility will prompt tighter regulations on the oil industry. Better blowout protection on drilling platforms will become mandatory, stricter controls will be placed on oil handling facilities, stiffer penalties levied for dumping bilge at sea and heavier fines imposed for spilling oil on land.
Despite efforts to switch to alternative forms of energy, the demand for oil will continue to rise. The low hanging fruit of oil, deposits that are close to shore or on easily accessible land, have been tapped out. The search for more oil will push drilling operations further into deeper water and into more pristine areas, such as the far North. The more difficult the drilling becomes, the greater the chances that more spills will happen.
The accident in the Gulf of Mexico is in warm water surrounded by the heart of the North American oil industry. There are plenty of resources close at hand to deal with the spill fairly quickly. A similar event in a remote area of the frozen North is another matter altogether. A better plan is to tighten the pipes so white snow doesn't get coloured by chocolate mousse.
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