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Archana Ghode, IIT (Madras), Chennai

Very often we see people blowing bubbles to sell their bubble solutions on the
beach or in markets. It is a lovely sight to see the bubbles floating in air;
bubbles make a place beautiful and bright.

These bubbles are mostly made up of soap. A soap bubble is a thin film of soap and
water stretched by the air inside. The soap film is stretchable.

Many of us have made soap bubbles while playing with soap water. Many sellers also
have a twisted wire with a loop. The loop is dipped into the soapy solution. When
it is removed a soap film clings to the loop.

What happens when you blow into a soap film? If you blow quickly and hard, it
breaks. However, if you blow slowly and gently, the soap film that is stretched
across the surface will start to stretch more until a bubble is formed. This then
breaks away from the loop and floats like gossamer.


If you make bubbles with just soap water, they do not last very long. They
eventually burst. This happens when the layer of water evaporates. In fact, it is
possible to make bubbles with plain water, but these last for even shorter times.
The soap stabilises the bubble by decreasing the surface tension of water. For more
details, see the box on surface tension and bubbles.

Soap decreases surface tension to approximately one third the surface tension of
pure water. Soap does not strengthen bubbles; it stabilizes them. You may have
noticed that a stretched balloon usually bursts at its weakest point. The same is
true of a bubble. Addition of soap prevents this from happening.

Suppose one part of the soap film stretches, so the amount of soap in this part of
the surface (its surface concentration) decreases. Since there is less soap, the
surface tension increases here and thus strengthens this portion of the bubble
surface. In other words, soap prevents a weak portion of the bubble from stretching
further. In addition, the soap reduces evaporation so the bubbles last longer.

Detergents are better than soaps. This is because detergents don't contain a
special chemical compound called carboxylate group. This group reacts with any
calcium or magnesium ions in hard water to form a scum. So soap can form scum with
hard water and will ruin your bubbles, while detergents don't do this. Of course,
if you have clean distilled water, you can use simple soap instead of detergents.

Adding glycerine lengthens the life span. Glycerine, with a molecular formula
C3H5(OH)3, helps soap bubbles hold water and this helps to keep the bubbles from
bursting for a longer time.

Both glycerine and water contain hydrogen. (The chemical formula for water is H2O).
The hydrogen from different molecules interact to form weak bonds called hydrogen
bonds. Hydrogen bonds formed between gycerin and water delay evaporation. Dry air
or dry hands can still burst a bubble. Moist air works best of all, which is why
bubbles blown on a beach seem to last for ever!

You may have noticed that bubbles are always spherical (round in shape) even if the
loop is not exactly round. Why do bubbles form a sphere? Well, a sphere is the
shape that provides the most space for the air inside with the least stretching of
the soap film. So the soap film always contracts to make the smallest possible
surface that can contain the air inside it.

That means, the sphere provides the minimal surface area needed to enclose a given
volume, making it the most efficient shape for a bubble. By doing this, the
surface energy of the bubble is minimised. If you are curious about this, read more
details in the box on geometry of soap bubbles.

What about bubbles in soda or an aerated drink? Are they the same? A typical
aerated drink has carbon-dioxide dissolved in it. When the bottle is opened, the
carbon-dioxide rises to the surface as little bubbles. The bubble of gas comes out
through the liquid surrounding it. So it has only one surface, unlike soap bubbles
which have two surfaces (inner layer of soapy water in contact with air inside and
outer layer of soapy water in contact with air outside). These bubbles simply break
when they reach the surface, thus releasing the carbon-dioxide into the air.

Make your own bubble solution

You will need clean water, any dish-washing detergent such as vim or pril, and some

Glycerine can be purchased at most pharmacies. You won't need much, so buy just a

1. Popular and simple bubble solution: Here is very common solution for most bubble
tricks, experiments, and activities.

Take a small amount of any dish-washing detergent and 7-10 times as much water. Mix
water, detergent, and 1-2 tablespoons of glycerine in a bowl or plastic container.

2. Outdoor adventures thick bubble solution: This is a thick solution that forms
bubbles strong enough to withstand a small puff of air. You can blow bubbles inside
of bubbles with this mixture, and you don't need a straw. Just make a bubble and

Use only 2 parts water to one 1 part dish-washing detergent. Combine in a bowl with
1-2 tablespoons of glycerine.

3. Bouncy bubble solution: This is a fun solution that can give you bubbles that
can bounce off your clothes.

Dissolve 2 packages of unflavored gelatine in 4 cups hot water. The water must be
just boiled; ask an adult's help to do this! Ass 3-5 tablespoons of glycerine and 3
tablespoons of dish-washing detergent.

The mixture will gel, so you'll need to reheat it whenever you use it.

You can experiment with the proportions so that your bubbles last a long time. Of
course commercial bubble solutions contain special ingredients. Some solutions
contains a polymer that allows bubbles to resist evaporation. The polymer reacts
with air to harden three to four seconds after a bubble is blown. The bubbles can
then be caught with dry hands without popping. But the joy of bubbles is being able
to make more and more of them!

Some tips:

1. Stay clean: Try to keep all bubble-mix equipment free of dust, dirt,
fingerprints, bad breath, flying insects, ... If your bubble tools touch anything
other than the bubble mix container, you may have a piece of dust in every big
bubble. It can burst the bubble very fast.
2. Avoid sun, work in shady areas. Try bubble making right after the sun sets.

3. Make bubbles when the air is still or only slightly breezy.

4. Keep your bubble tools really wet with bubble solution. Play with bubbles on a
beach or after a rainstorm.

BOX: Soap film and surface tension

A soap film consists of a thin sheet of water sandwiched between two layers of soap
molecules. One end of each soap molecule is hydrophilic, or attracted to water. The
other end consists of a hydrophobic hydrocarbon chain that tends to avoid water but
likes to stick to greasy dirt. In fact, that's how soap helps in washing. The
hydrophobic end of the soap molecules attaches itself to the dirt in clothes or
vessels. The when you vigourously wash it off, the dirt is removed as well.

The hydrophobic ends of the soap molecules crowd to the surface,

trying to avoid the water, and stick out away from the layer of water
molecules. As a result, water molecules separate from each other. The
increased distance between the water molecules causes a decrease in
surface tension, enabling bubbles to form when air is gently blown into
the film.

Also, since the hydrophobic ends stick out of the water, the water surface is
protected and does not evaporate easily, so the bubble lasts longer.

BOX: Geometry and soap bubbles

We read in the main text that the surface area of a sphere is least for a given
volume. Think of containers of different shapes like the cube, the tetrahedron,
sphere, etc., all of which hold 1 litre of water. Then you will need least amount
of paint to paint the sphere rather than the cube or any other shape. That's
because it has the least surface area.

This is hard to see and calculate for three-dimensional shapes. Let us look at a
simpler version in two dimensions. Consider different shapes such as triangle,
square, hexagon, octagon, and circle. The argument about least area for same volume
above means that you have least (smallest) perimeter for the same area in the two
dimensional case.

The shapes are shown in the figure, along with their perimeter (length of
boundary). Each figure has unit area (if area is 1 m2, then perimeter given is in
m) so each perimeter or boundary encloses the same area. It is clear that the
perimeter decreases as the number of edges of the polygon increases, with the least
perimeter being that of the circle (which you can think of as a polygon with
infinite sides).

A similar argument in three dimensions leads to the fact that the sphere is the
smallest surface that can enclose a given volume.

There are other nice geometrical facts about soap bubbles. For instance, when there
are several bubbles in the air, they can either bounce off each other or come
together and merge. When they merge, they acquire a specific shape. They have a
common wall. If both bubbles are the same size, the wall is flat. The wall and the
outer surface of the two bubbles must always join at 120 degree angle. If the
bubbles are not of the same size, the smaller bubble will bulge into the bigger
When three bubbles meet, they will also meet at the centre at an angle of 120
degrees to each other. After some time, the bubbles that are stuck to each other
may join to become one bubble.