Earlier this year a freak accident led to gallons of jet fuel leaking on the track and catching fire. Crews used boxes of Tide to clean up the mess, but why? The Wall Street Journal investigates:
As it turns out, scrubbing jet fuel off the asphalt of a Nascar racetrack abides by the same chemistry principles as washing oil off your hands.
“Soap and detergent are two forms of the same chemical entity,” said Ed Montgomery, a chemistry professor at Centre College in Danville, Ky. “They mix on one end with the water and on the other end with the petrochemical.”
The molecular structure of jet fuel is such that oil and water don’t mix, so it would have been impossible to fully clean the track with just a hose, said Steven Keller, a chemistry professor at the University of Missouri. But the surfactants in the detergent essentially dissolved the fuel droplets on the Daytona track and made them soluble. Keller described these surfactants as “schizophrenic,” since they interact with both water and oil.
In that way, the laundry detergent that saved the Daytona 500 served the same purpose as liquid soap from any bathroom dispenser. “If you get oil on your hands and just put them under water, you can still feel that slipperiness,” Keller said. “But if you use soap, it surrounds those molecules.”
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