Weekend Diversion: Why is Oil in the oceans so frightening?

Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing. -Benjamin Franklin

Every weekend, I try to bring something light to you, but there's a lot of heavy stuff going on in the world right now. So instead of the usual, I'd like to tell you just a little bit about why putting even a little bit of oil in the oceans can be so disastrous.

And I can't think of a better modern voice to take us through that than Regina Spektor, whose voice reminds me of greats such as Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. Take a listen to her song Apres Moi.

Apres Moi by Regina Spektor

Most of you know that if you take pretty much any type of oil, it will float on top of water.

But what if the amount of water you have is much, much larger than the amount of oil that you have? It turns out that the oil will spread out over the surface as much as possible.

How much is as much as possible? Until the oil on the surface of the water is just one molecule thick. So, how thick is one molecule of oil? Believe it or not, Ben Franklin was the first person to measure it, and you can measure it, too! All you need is some oil, an eyedropper, and a flat, clean body of water.

The eyedropper is great, because a single drop of anything that comes out of an eyedropper is going to be almost exactly one milliliter of volume, or one cubic millimeter. That's tiny, isn't it? You'd have to line up one thousand drops in a line to get something one meter (a little over three feet) long. But when you drop just a single drop into a flat pool of water, it spreads out to make a circle that's huge!

This single drop, which was just a millimeter in size (about 1/25th of an inch), now spreads out to a diameter of 24 feet, or over seven meters!

If I work out my math, that means a single molecule of oil is only about 2 nanometers (or 20 Angstroms) thick!

(Beware of the number one hit on google, which unwittingly uses far less than a milliliter of water in their experiment, and gets an answer that's almost 50 times too large!)

Well, what does that mean if -- instead of a drop of oil -- I dump an entire gallon of oil into a large body of water?

It would spread out to make a circle that was 450 meters in diameter. That's over a quarter of a mile. From just one gallon (about 3.8 liters).

And what about the Oil Leak which is spilling oil into the gulf of Mexico right now?

It's currently spilling an estimated 200,000 gallons of oil into the gulf of Mexico every day.

In other words, every day, a new 125,000 square kilometers (or 50,000 square miles) of ocean will eventually get coated in oil when it finishes spreading out. That's almost as big as New York State.

Practically, of course, this much oil won't spread out to be one molecule thick; more like 100 molecules thick in most places, but that's still a huge disaster! Many of you will remember the Exxon Valdez spill and the consequences this caused:

Well, the one in the Gulf of Mexico, as I write this, is only seventeen miles away from the Mississippi Delta. It's one thing to look at pictures of animals killed from an oil spill.

This isn't only about animals this time. This isn't happening in a corner of the world where very few people live. This is happening in a place that will affect millions of people. And by time this leak is fixed, we may well exceed the total volume dumped by the 1989 spill. This is about your world, your oceans, your environment and for many of you, your own health.

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I think you mean that a drop coming out of an eyedropper is one microliter in volume (one milliliter being a cubic centimeter of course).

Andre beat me to it - I just got done measuring some stuff with a teaspoon (almost 5 ml). pesky decimal points...

"So, how thick is one molecule of water?"
Don't you mean one molecule of oil?

Cool experiment, hadn't heard of that before :P

By Rory Kent (not verified) on 02 May 2010 #permalink

Leave it to an astrophysicist to sneak in the angstroms.

I thought it was us chemists who only used angstroms anymore, since they are the proper order of magnitude for bond lengths. I figured I was being pandered to (along with all the talk of molecules larger than two atoms... things physicists never usually talk about).

Ah, if only the oil spread out as much as possible, it wouldn't be as big a problem - well, unless there was so much that oxygen transport in the shallow surface were inhibited. Crude oil contains a fairly large high molecular weight fraction compared to other oils you may be familiar with like motor oil (produced by 'cracking' which fragments the molecules among other things, and distillation) and cooking oil. Thanks to the interaction between the molecules, the components of crude oil will not spread out to the thickness of a molecule. Some crudes have a fairly high wax content; the wax is pretty soft (the dissolved organics help keep it soft) and similar to dough. That wax, as it gets battered around on the surface, can trap all sorts of things and may become on the whole more dense than the seawater and sink (or at least float below the surface).

By MadScientist (not verified) on 02 May 2010 #permalink

Regina Spektor is wonderful; but not quite enough.

A few relevant quotes
"A conservative estimate of the leak would place it at just over 7 million litres so far, and counting. An oceanographer at Florida State University nearby suggested that Coast Guard charts and satellite images indicate it could be as much as 38 million litres by now." theStar online

"The Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in Prince William Sound, Alaska, on March 24, 1989, when the Exxon Valdez, an oil tanker bound for Long Beach, California, hit Prince William Sound's Bligh Reef and spilled an estimated minimum 10.8 million US gallons (40.9 million litres)" Wiki

"The damage to fisheries is estimated at US$2.5bil (RM8bil) and to tourism US$3bil (RM9.5bil), while BP shares have fallen 13% and the company has lost US$20bil (RM63.7bil) in market capitalisation.
The oil slick now measures 130km by 260km. "theStar online

"Mr. Fryar said that for a second day, crews were injecting chemical dispersant into the oil as it flowed from the main leak. Dispersant, which is more conventionally used on the water surface, breaks the oil into small droplets and reduces its buoyancy, so it will sink to the bottom.
Mr. Fryar said technicians were trying to determine whether it would be possible to inject the dispersant directly into the riser deep under the water so that it would mix better with the flowing oil. âWe think this dispersant is highly effective,â he said. âWeâre hoping the oil wonât make it to the surface.â
The impact of chemical dispersants on deepwater ecology is unclear."NYTimes

"But reimbursement may be one of the largest battles to come, given that federal law sets a limit of $75 million on BPâs liability for damages, apart from the cleanup costs.
âItâs going to be extremely trickyâ to reimburse fishermen and others if economic damages tally above $75 million, said Stuart Smith, a New Orleans-based lawyer who is pushing for Congressional action to amend the law. âThey may not be obligated to pay more than that unless they agree to do it.â
There is a federal fund, generated from a tax on oil, that may cover as much as $1 billion in damages."

"I can see you don't want to be cheered up. Let's go bowling Donny." Walter, the Big Lebowski

By not today (not verified) on 02 May 2010 #permalink

Has anyone noticed that CNN and other rumor mills can't get the quantities right? I have heard them claim that 5,000 gallons, 5,000 barrels, 200,000 gallons and 200,000 barrels are leaking per day. They may as well say that a big scary bunch of oil is gushing from (their words) "an oil drill, a a platform that blew up, 3 big holes under the gulf." And that no one knows what to do. This latter part is true, at least for any quick solution. As always, government agencies are looking into "bringing all available resources to the problem." That is: We have to ask the oil companies what they want us to do. They won't like it if we get mad at them.

Having worked briefly for two oil companies, I appreciate how difficult the technology involved is, how risky and dangerous the work, but the prevailing attitude was one of extreme entitlement; anyone concerned with environmental effects was a "wimp" "unAmerican" "a traitor" - they used much more vulgar terms than I care to repeat. Foreign countries existed to be pillaged. It's popular to bash government regulation these days, but without sane external controls on industries that are entwined with the public good, policy is determined by greed, corruption, and the great environmental f--k you.

Andre et al.,

Argh! What a poor mistake on my part! An eyedrop from a dropper is about 50 microliters, and the figures I gave were mixed up between a cubic centimeter (one mL) and a cubic millimeter (one microliter).

From the Ben Franklin experiment on, that's for one mL, which is one cubic centimeter, and that's correct. But yikes, did I ever botch the eyedrop part; wish I never wrote it!

@bo moore:I wonder if you worked for one of the 'undesirable' oil companies (which stock holders find highly desirable). There are also huge differences between the managers at various levels (and the managers for a particular site) and the various scientists. In this case the government needs to bring in experts (which by necessity must be from the oil industry - so there's an opportunity to stack the panel) to look at what happened and come up with recommendations on how to avoid the problem in the future. If that means a $50M gizmo at the sea floor during drilling and after completion that's really no issue at all - just something more for the oil companies to grumble about. As far as this particular leak goes, I suspect it will go on until the reservoir pressure drops enough that the oil leak stops on its own.

By MadScientist (not verified) on 03 May 2010 #permalink

Dear Mad scientist: I don't give a rat's ass about stockholders. Oil from offshore rigs doesn't "belong" to the U.S. It gets sold on the world market. A big platform goes "bang" and it's our environment that gets wasted, our jobs lost. Spending multi-billions on accidents is an enormous waste of resources, regardless who pays. And we, the public pay. We pay for adventures like Iraq, which are meant to grab oil reserves. Is it worth it? No, it's insane.

You didn't really botch it. Yes, you did get some numbers wrong; but you did get the human aspects and environmental concerns about this disaster correct. And I liked your thought process.

Maybe in a year after all of the contingencies and extenuating circumstances are understood; someone will be able to definitively describe the physics involved in this disaster and declare this to be a modest or a worst disaster or whatever.

Crude oil is indeed one of nature's greatest miracles. Consider that long stored solar energy having been finally released by our burning of fossil fuels which end products if properly burned or in any event is ultimately broken down for the most part amounts to nothing more than those very elements from which they were derived from in the first place. Assuming the sun continues to shine and simple organisms continue to live, given a few million years we can burn it all over again! Yo ho ho. Patience my friend, patience. In a few years or so and crude oil will be too precious to be considered as a mere fuel but we'll still need all we can get.

By Lloyd Hargrove (not verified) on 06 May 2010 #permalink

Thanks for the article. Milliliter, microliter, ... minor oversight, on small detail. Am very glad you wrote the article.

Question to help clarify:
Does this micro, milli, thing change the; one drop = 24' result?
I think not.

By Greg blankenship (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

The ocean's floors naturally "leak" oil into the seas on an ongoing basis. Granted, this disaster caused by a rig is sending a given amount of oil out in a much more concentrated amount of time. But the local ecosystem will recover in time. Just look at other destructive forces, such as a Volcano. Mt St. Helens and the return of life after its blast around 1980. For everyone who harps against oil, imagine all of the advancement in technology, etc. derived from it! Plus, no one has mentioned the array of pretty colors it produces when spread out thin over a body of water.

Copied from wikipedia;
The concise Brittanica Encyclopedia estimates the surface of the Gulf of Mexico to be

1,550,000 km2 that is 1,550,000,000,000 m2

e maximum depth of the Gulf is 5203 m.

The average depth is somwhere between 0 and that value. I guess 1/4 the maximum depth (because it gave me an almost round number) of 1300 m.

Multiplying 1,550,000,000,000 m2 x 1300m = 2.015 x 10 E 15 m3 or

5.3 X 10 E 17 USGallons

Question: How many gallons of oil would it take to equal the ratio of the number above to the ratio sited in this article; 1 quart of oil to 250,000 gallons of water?

The below link shows at the 9:15 mark on the video that oil leak estimation is between 64,000 barrels and 110,000 barrels a day.
The link is supposed to be from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I cannot vouch for authenticity.