Not every chemical has the power to lower the inter-facial tension or the surface tension between a liquid and a solid or between two liquids. There are only specific chemicals for that and those have been addressed as Surfactants.
The industry of surfactants is dynamic and huge, and it is way beyond the most familiar surfactant, the soap. You’ll be surprised that soap is not the first surfactant known to mankind. Some plants like Saponaria officianalis produce ‘Saponin’ which has surfactant properties. It is likely that such plants provided our ancestors with the first useful surfactant. Many organic surfactants are still used particularly for all delicate materials.
Surfactant is made by comprising three words, “Surface Active Agents”. Surfactants are very commonly used as cleaning agents. These act as emulsifiers, dispersants, foaming agents and wetting agents. Surfactants purpose is to eliminate the interface between water and stains, which is because they contain both hydrophilic (part that dissolves in water) and hydrophobic (part that repels water) compounds.
Hydrophilic and hydrophobic chemicals modify the properties of water. They lower the surface tension, which facilitates the cleaning solution to dampen the fabric quickly making it easier for the stains to loosen and be removed from the fabric facilitated by the mechanical action. Surfactants can easily emulsify oily stains and prevent them from settling back on the cloth. Water devoid of surfactants, will not let soaps mix in it, but would just roll off the water, making the cleaning process much trickier.
Surfactant Uses and Benefits
- The most important and widely known use of Surfactants is, when added to cleaning agents, like detergent, they allow the detergent to mix into water, allowing cleaning agents to remove dirt from the surface being cleaned.
- Surfactants are used in lubricants like shaving cream where they let razors easily remove stubble and aid limit irritation. Also, when added to car engine, Surfactants help keep particles from sticking to engine parts, allowing the parts to move smoothly and keeps your car in a proper running condition.
- In oil fields surfactants are used for their foaming properties; where they are used in well cutting, drilling fluids, stimulating agents, acidizing and drill cutting, just to name a few.
- Mineral processors make use of surfactants to float mineral ore and to also amend crystal habitats. Metalworkers bring into play surfactants for stabilizing the hard water, emulsifying and dampening materials, inhibiting corrosion; and also, as lubricants and detergents.
As per a recent report by Allied Market Research, the global surfactant industry is estimated to grow at 3.4% CAGR during 2015-2020 forecast period. Such an extensive and diverse spectrum of applications certainly indicates of just how versatile and functional surfactants can be. Consciously or not, nearly every human being would be using at least one surfactant of some sort each day.