An herbicide formulation is the total marketed product, and is typically available in forms that can be sprayed on as liquids or applied as dry solids. It includes the active ingredient(s), any additives that enhance herbicide effectiveness, stability or ease of application such as surfactants and other adjuvants, and any other ingredients including solvents, carriers or dyes. The application method and species to be treated will determine which formulation is best to use. In most cases, manufacturers produce formulations that make applications and handling simpler and safer. Some herbicides are available in forms that can reduce risk of exposure during mixing, such as pre-measured packets that dissolve in water, or as a liquid form already mixed with surfactant and dye.
Sprayable or Liquid Formulations
- Water-soluble formulations: soluble liquids (SL), soluble powders or packets (SP), and soluble granules (SG). Only a few herbicidal active ingredients readily dissolve in water. These products will not settle out or separate when mixed with water.
- Emulsifiable formulations (oily liquids): emulsifiable concentrates (E or EC) and gels (GL). These products tend to be easy to handle and store, require little agitation, and will not settle out of solution. Disadvantages of these products are that most can be easily absorbed through the skin and the solvents they contain can cause the rubber and plastic parts of application equipment to deteriorate.
- Liquid suspensions (L for liquid or F for flowable) that are dispersed in water include: suspension concentrates (SC), aqueous suspensions (AS), emulsions of water-dissolved herbicide in oil (EO), emulsions of an oil-dissolved herbicide in water (EW), micro-encapsulated formulations (ME), and capsule suspensions (CS). All these products consist of a particulate or liquid droplet active ingredient suspended in a liquid. They are easy to handle and apply, and rarely clog nozzles. However, they can require agitation to keep the active ingredients from separating out.
- Dry solids that are suspended in water: wettable powders (W or WP), water-dispersible granules (WDG, WG, DG), or dry flowables (DF). These formulations are some of the most widely used. The active ingredient is mixed with a fine particulate carrier, such as clay, to maintain suspension in water. These products tend to be inexpensive, easy to store, and are not as readily absorbed through the skin and eyes as ECs or other liquid formulations. These products, however, can be inhalation hazards during pouring and mixing. In addition, they require constant agitation to maintain suspension and they may be abrasive to application pumps and nozzles.
- Granules (G) - Granules consist of the active ingredient absorbed onto coarse particles of clay or other substance, and are most often used in soil applications. These formulations can persist for some time and may need to be incorporated into the soil.
- Pellets (P) or tablets (TB) - Pellets are similar to granules but tend to be more uniform in size and shape.
- Dusts (D) - A dust is a finely ground pesticide combined with an inert or inactive dry carrier. They can pose a drift or inhalation hazard.
Salts Versus Esters
Many herbicidally-active compounds are acids that can be formulated as a salt or an ester for application. Once the compound enters the plant, the salt or ester cation is cleaved off allowing the parent acid (active ingredient) to be transported throughout the plant. When choosing between the salt or ester formulation, consider the following characteristics:
- Most salts are highly water soluble, which reduces the need for emulsifiers or agitation to keep the compound suspended.
- Salts are not soluble in oil.
- Salts generally require a surfactant to facilitate penetration through the plant cuticle (waxy covering of leaves and stems).
- Salts are less volatile than esters.
- Salts can dissociate in water. In hard water the parent acid (i.e. the active ingredient) may bind with calcium and magnesium in the water, precipitate out, and be inactivated.
- Esters can penetrate plant tissues more readily than salts, especially woody tissue.
- Esters generally are more toxic to plants than salt.
- Esters are not water soluble and require an emulsifying agent to remain suspended in water-based solvents.
- Esters have varying degrees of volatility.
Active Ingredient (AI) versus Acid Equivalent (AE)
Labels on herbicide containers and instructions for mixing herbicides sometimes use units of herbicide active ingredient (AI) or acid equivalent (AE). The herbicide may be sold in different concentrations, but units of a.i. or a.e. provide standard measures, so the mixing instructions can apply in all cases. In order to follow these instructions, you will need to determine how many AI or AE are in an ounce, or quart or liter, of the concentrate on hand.
The AI of an herbicide formulation is responsible for its herbicidal activity or ability to kill or suppress plants. The AI is always identified on the herbicide label by either its common name or chemical name, or both. Herbicide formulations available for sale commonly contain other so-called "inert" compounds too.
The AE of an herbicide is just the acid portion of the AI, and it is this acid portion that is responsible for herbicidal effects. The acid portion (or parent acid) is generally associated with other chemical compounds to form a salt or an ester, which is more stable and better able to move through a plant's waxy cuticle, and into the plant. The salt or ester is the AI.
Weak acid herbicides are formulated as salts or esters through the addition of a salt or ester molecular group to the parent acid molecule. This allows the herbicide acid to mix properly with adjuvants and enhances the compound's ability to move into plant tissue. Once the herbicide enters the plant, the salt or ester group is cleaved off the parent molecule, allowing the acid to affect the plant.
Because the salt or ester molecular group can vary dramatically in size, a measure of the percent AI, especially in the case of a weak acid herbicide, does not adequately reflect the percentage of acid in the formulation. Thus, the AE is used to determine the amount of the product to be applied.
Product labels for weak acid herbicides will list the product's percentage of active ingredient, as well as other inert ingredients, at the top of the label. The percentage of acid equivalent in the formulation is usually listed below these percentages in a separate table or paragraph.
An adjuvant is any material added to a pesticide mixture that facilitates mixing, application or pesticide efficacy. An adjuvant enables an applicator to customize a formulation to be most effective in a particular situation. Adjuvants include surfactants, stickers, extenders, activators, compatibility agents, buffers and acidifiers, deposition aids, de-foaming agents, thickeners and dyes.
Surfactants are the most important adjuvants. They are chemical compounds that facilitate the movement of the active herbicide ingredient into the plant. They may contain varying amounts of fatty acids that are capable of binding to two types of surfaces, such as oil and water. Some herbicide