Detergency and Its Implications for Oil Emulsion Sieving and Separation

Separating petroleum hydrocarbons from water is an important problem to address in order to mitigate the disastrous effects of hydrocarbons on aquatic ecosystems. A rational approach to address the problem of marine oil–water separation is to disperse the oil with the aid of surfactants in order to minimize the formation of large slicks at the water surface and to maximize the oil–water interfacial area. Here we investigate the fundamental wetting and transport behavior of such surfactant-stabilized droplets and the flow conditions necessary to perform sieving and separation of these stabilized emulsions. We show that, for water-soluble surfactants, such droplets are completely repelled by a range of materials (intrinsically underwater superoleophobic) due to the detergency effect; therefore, there is no need for surface micro-/nanotexturing or chemical treatment to repel the oil and prevent fouling of the filter. We then simulate and experimentally investigate the effect of emulsion flow rate on the transport and impact behavior of such droplets on rigid meshes to identify the minimum pore opening (w) necessary to filter a droplet with a given diameter (d) in order to minimize the pressure drop across the meshand therefore maximize the filtering efficiency, which is strongly dependent on w. We define a range of flow conditions and droplet sizes where minimum droplet deformation is to be expected and therefore find that the condition of wd is sufficient for efficient separation. With this new understanding, we demonstrate the use of a commercially available filterwithout any additional surface engineering or functionalizationto separate oil droplets (d < 100 μm) from a surfactant-stabilized emulsion with a flux of ∼11,000 L m–2 h–1 bar–1. We believe these findings can inform the design of future oil separation materials.