Tiny Bubbles Break Each Other up

Rice University engineers demonstrate mechanics of making foam with bubbles in distinct sizes

microscopic bubbles
A sequence shows the progression of bidisperse foam generation in a microfluidic device created at Rice University. When bubbles enter, they pinch the preceding bubble into two before becoming a wall against which the next bubble will be pinched. Courtesy of the Biswal Lab

It’s easy to make bubbles, but try making hundreds of thousands of them a minute – all the same size.


A video shot at more than 30,000 frames per second shows how bubbles generated in a microfluidic device “pinch” one another as they create a foam. Rice University engineers made the devices to generate foam with bubbles in two or three distinct sizes. Courtesy of the Biswal Lab

Rice University engineers can do that and much more. Rice chemical and biomolecular engineer Sibani Lisa Biswaland lead author and graduate student Daniel Vecchiolla have created a microfluidic device that pumps out more than 15,000 microscopic bubbles a second and can be tuned to make them in one, two or three distinct sizes.

The work featured on the cover of the Royal Society of Chemistry journal Soft Matter enables customizable, “wet” foams in small amounts for applications that include chemical and biological studies.

The best part is that the bubbles themselves do the hard part.

movie that demonstrates the mechanism shows elongated bubbles shooting through a tube into an input channel. Each arrow-like bubble moves with enough force to split the bubble ahead of it, but the arrow remains intact. It takes its place between the new “daughter” bubbles and becomes a “wall” that holds the next bubble in place for splitting. In that way, only every other bubble entering the expansion splits from the inter-bubble forces.

A foam with bubbles in two distinct sizes is contained in a microfluidic device created by Rice University engineers. The device can create more than 15,000 bubbles a second. (Credit: Biswal Lab/Rice University)

A foam with bubbles in two distinct sizes is contained in a microfluidic device created by Rice University engineers. The device can create more than 15,000 bubbles a second. Courtesy of the Biswal Lab

Vecchiolla described the process as “metronomic,” the tick being a bubble splitting and the tock a bubble that remains whole.

When the input is centered and all the other parameters – the type of liquid, its viscosity, the flow rate and the width of the channel – are right, the device fills with large bubbles in the middle and two ranks of identical, smaller bubbles along the edges. When the input is offset, the stream produces bubbles in three sizes.

“There’s interest in using monodisperse bubbles for material applications and miniaturized reactors, so there’s been a lot of studies about the generation of uniformly sized gas bubbles,” Biswal said. “But there have been very few that looked at using neighboring bubbles to create these daughter bubbles. We’re able to generate well-ordered foam systems and control the size distribution.”

Recent alumna Vidya Giri helped create the microfluidic channels, which are about one-twentieth of an inch wide with a feeder channel of about 70 microns.

Biswal is an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of materials science and nanoengineering. The National Science Foundation supported the research.

An illustration shows the mechanism by which foam with bubbles in two distinct sizes is created in a microfluidic device. Rice University engineers discovered the technique to make foam with bubbles in two or three distinct sizes. (Credit: Eric Vavra/Biswal Lab)

An illustration shows the mechanism by which foam with bubbles in two distinct sizes is created in a microfluidic device. Rice University engineers discovered the technique to make foam with bubbles in two or three distinct sizes. Illustration by Eric Vavra/Biswal Lab