Post 577 –by Gautam Shah
Egg white, yolk and plant gums have been part of our life since prehistoric times, as thickening and emulsifying agents. Plant gums, like ‘Gum Arabic’ was used as thickening agent (and as a binder) for body paints, pottery colours and as a food emulsifier. Egg yolks and oil do not mix well but slowly whisking it can create a non separating, stable emulsion. This was technique was also used for forming colour pastes for wall paintings. The colours mixed into an emulsion did not drip or run during application. The egg offered substrate binding properties, whereas the oil helped protect the surface.
An emulsion is a mixture of two or more immiscible (that would not normally mix) liquids. It contains very small particles (droplets of microscopic or ultra-microscopic size) of one liquid distributed throughout the other. Chemically, these are colloids with liquids as both phases. In an oil-in-water emulsion, such as butter or margarine, the continuous phase is water and the dispersed phase is oil. Opposite to this, the water-in-oil emulsions, the oil is in continuous phase and water is dispersed into it. Butter and margarine, are examples of water-in-oil emulsions. Mayonnaise is an oil-in-water emulsion, stabilized with lecithin obtained from egg yolk. A mix of oil and water when agitated, forms a temporary emulsion, one where liquids separate immediately. But traditionally emulsifiers like gum Arabic, egg yolk, were used to stop the coalescence of oils droplets.
Milk is a common example of an oil-in-water emulsion. Cream and Butter are both material combinations with same substances, but in different proportions. A Cream is oil-in-water emulsion whereas a Butter is water-in-oil emulsion. Their tastes and textures are though very different. Emulsion products include mayonnaise, margarine, hollandaise, icing, fillings, chewing gum, confectionery items, face creams, skin lotions, make-up products, hair dressing products, dyes, tanning compounds, medical formulations, lithography inks, oil bound distempers (*OBD), and plastic or latex paints. Emulsions deliver a liquid product dispersed in a carrier liquid to reduce the cost, disperse the applied material and add body to the formulation.
Emulsions are formed and maintained by single or combination of processes like: Addition of an emulsifier, Mechanical mixing, Thickening agents and Heat energy. Stable emulsions can be undone by nullifying the effect of the emulsifier through chemical agents, freezing or high temperature heating.
Emulsifiers: An emulsifier makes the emulsion stable. Addition of surface-active agents reduces the interfacial tension between the dispersed and the continuous phases.
Mechanical mixing: Vigorous stirring with or without stirrer blades causes the dispersible phase into finer droplets to form suspension in the continuous phase.
Thickening agents: Such agents increase the viscosity of the continuous phase, which prevents the movement and coalescence of dispersed droplets. Nominally emulsions have higher viscosity then their individual ingredients. Most emulsions are shear-thinning fluids where vigorous stirring can reduce the viscosity.
Heat energy: The viscosity and interfacial tension of the dispersing phase is reduced by heating.
Transparency and Colour of Emulsions: The size of the droplet of the dispersing phase affects the light reflection, changing its transparency and colour. Emulsions are cloudy or milky in appearance when disperse-phase is of finer droplets. If the droplets are very large, then it is closer to simple dispersion or suspension. Emulsion paints are added with thixotropic agents that lower the viscosity on stirring before application, but on storage gain high viscosity to prevent settling of pigments.
Micro-emulsions are thermodynamically stable because the dispersed phase is 0.01–0.2 µm in size. Such emulsions have a characteristic transparency as their droplet size is <25% of the wavelength of visible light. Micro emulsions are stable due to the small size of droplets and high proportion of surfactants in the formulations.
Polymeric emulsions came into commercial use post 1940s. These are prepared with water as the phase, and stabilized with surfactants (molecules that are hydrophilic (water-loving) in one phase and hydrophobic (water-hating) in the other phase). The polymeric emulsions have very high molecular weight, and so when the water phase evaporates polymers coalesce into a tough film. Plastic or Latex paints as known in USA are plastic paints with polymeric emulsion-based formulations. First acrylic emulsion based ‘binders’ were produced for leather and fabric printing, but soon began to be offered as architectural coatings. Plastic paints were formulated at a time (1940s) when solvent-based paints made with alkyd or linseed oils ruled the markets. ‘Oil paints’ were odorous, toxic, and flammable. Early acrylic paints didn’t bond well to ‘oil painted’ surfaces. Acrylic emulsions offered non yellowing, non cracking, environmentally safe, odourless and non-flammable system.
Acrylic emulsion paint formulations are costly to produce in comparison to ‘oil-based’ paints, and other ‘plastic paints’ such as of Vinyl and PVA (polyvinyl acetate) systems. Interior emulsion paints have high vinyl and low acrylic contents. A paint with a high acrylic content will have much better water and stain resistance.
‘Emulsifying effects’ since prehistoric times, have now developed into science of fluid behaviour and mixing. The term emulsion has become synonymous for liquid-mix systems, and is used to designate solutions, suspensions, or gels.