Surfactants

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  • Surfactants are compounds that lower the surface tension of a liquid, the interfacial tension between two liquids, or that between a liquid and a solid. Surfactants may act as detergents, wetting agents,
    emulsifiers, foaming agents, and dispersants.
  • They enable the cleaning solution to fully wet the surface being cleaned so that dirt can be readily loosened and removed. They clean greasy, oily, particularly protein and carbohydrate-based stains. They are instrumental in removing dirt and in keeping them emulsified, suspended, and dispersed so they don't settle back onto the surface being cleaned.
  • Surfactants are usually organic compounds that are amphiphilic, meaning they contain both hydrophobic groups (their tails) and hydrophilic groups (their heads). Therefore, a surfactant molecule contains both a water insoluble (or oil soluble) component and a water soluble component.
  • Surfactant molecules will diffuse in water and adsorb at interfaces between air and water or at the interface between oil and water, in the case where water is mixed with oil.
  • The insoluble hydrophobic group may extend out of the bulk water phase, into the air or into the oil phase, while the water soluble head group remains in the water phase. This alignment of surfactant molecules at the surface modifies the surface properties of water at the water/air or water/oil interface.
  • In the bulk aqueous phase, surfactants form aggregates, such as micelles, where the hydrophobic tails form the core of the aggregate and the hydrophilic heads are in contact with the surrounding liquid.
  • Other types of aggregates such as spherical or cylindrical micelles or bilayers can be formed. The shape of the aggregates depends on the chemical structure of the surfactants, depending on the balance of the sizes of the hydrophobic tail and hydrophilic tail.
  • Surfactants play an important role as cleaning, wetting, dispersing, emulsifying, foaming and anti- foaming agents in many practical applications and products.
  • The annual global production of surfactants was 13 million metric tons in 2008,, and the annual turnover reached US$24.33 billion in 2009, nearly 2% up from the previous year. The market is expected to experience quite healthy growth by 2.8% annually to 2012 and by 3.5 - 4% thereafter.
  • The two major surfactants used in the year 2000 were linear alkylbenzene sulphonates (LAS) and the alkyl phenol ethoxylates (APE). They break down in the aerobic conditions found in sewage treatment plants and in soil.

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