Surfactants are the most versatile products of the chemical industry. There are utilized in every industrial area ranging from household detergents to drilling muds and food items to pharmaceuticals.
The term surfactant comes from the word surface active agent. They are amphiphilic molecules and are thus absorbed in the air-water interface. At the interface, they align themselves so that the hydrophobic part is in the air and the hydrophilic part is in water. This will cause a decrease in surface or interfacial tensions.Surfactant basics
As said, surfactants are amphiphilic molecules that have hydrophobic and hydrophilic parts. The hydrophobic tail is a hydrocarbon, fluorocarbon or siloxane. Surfactants are typically classified based on their polar head as the hydrophobic tails are often similar. If the head group has no charge, the surfactant is called non-ionic. If the head group has negative or positive charge, it is called anionic or cationic, respectively. If it contains both positive and negative groups, then the surfactant is called zwitterionic.
Anionic and nonionic surfactants are by far the most used surfactant types in the industry. Anionic surfactant finds use especially in cleaning products like laundry detergents and shampoos. Nonionic surfactants on the other hand are often used as wetting agents and in the food industry. Both cationic and zwitterionic surfactants are more for special use as they are more expensive to produce.
Because of their amphiphilic nature, surfactants absorb at the air-water or oil-water interface. At the interface, surfactants align themselves so that the hydrophobic part is in the air (or oil) and the hydrophilic part in water.
For simplicity, let’s consider only the air-water interface. The cohesive forces between the water molecules are very strong making the surface tension of water high. As surfactants absorb they break these interactions. The intermolecular forces between surfactant and water molecule are much lower than between two water molecules and thus surface tension will decrease. When the surfactant concentration is high, they form micelles. The point at which micelles are formed is called critical micelle concentration.
The main purpose of the surfactants is to decrease the surface and interfacial tension and stabilize the interface. Without surfactants washing laundry would be difficult and many of the food products like mayonnaise and ice cream would not exist. Thus optimization of surfactants for different applications is highly important and surface and interfacial tension measurements have a key role in it.
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Surface tension can be measured with force tensiometer using Du Noüy ring or Wilhelmy plate. Or with optical tensiometer using the pendant drop method.
Du Noüy method utilizes the interaction of a platinum ring with the surface of the liquid.
Surface tension of blood is an important characteristic when protective materials are being evaluated.
A basic requirement of any coating is that it should form a uniform, defect-free surface. Surface and interfacial tensions play a key role in that.
Surfactants are used in many industrial fields. Characterization of surfactants is thus important to optimize their performance and the products they are applied to. Surface and interfacial tension measurements offer versatile method to study the properties and behavior of the surfactant solution.