Foam bubbles finally brought to order

Dec 23, 2011
Professor Denis Weaire, Aaron Meagher, Dr. Ruggero Gabbrielli, Professor Stefan Hutzler.

Scientists have succeeded for the first time to turn the Weaire-Phelan foam model – a celebrated geometrical concept which received additional notoriety when used in Beijing’s Olympic Games iconic building the Water Cube – into real foam.

In 1994, Denis Weaire and Robert Phelan of Trinity College Dublin’s School of Physics made a landmark discovery in physics, and created a new ideal structure of foam.  It is the most efficient way to partition space into equal volume cells while minimising surface area – something soap bubbles strive to do in nature.   Their geometry of soap bubbles improved on a previous principle devised by the physicist, Lord Kelvin a century ago.

The Weaire-Phelan structure consists of two kinds of polyhedral bubbles with twelve and fourteen sides respectively. The structure can be cut along planes, showing the existence of layers of bubbles. Since its introduction in 1994 it has played an important role in theory and simulation of foams, for example in the study of elastic properties.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

The structure went on to inspire the design of the 2008 Olympic Games' iconic building, the Water Cube in the National Aquatic Center in Beijing.  Many millions have admired its elegant framework of steel beams, which follow the pattern of the ideal foam.

The physicists have now gone a step further and this month succeeded in turning the mathematical concept into real foam.

Now it exists in reality, thanks to the work of a team led by Dr. Ruggero Gabbrielli, from the University of Trento, in an SFI-funded visit to Trinity College.  Back in 1994 while the concept was computed, with the help of the software by Kenneth Brakke, they were unable to fabricate the new foam.

Acknowledging that the previous failures could be put down to the shape of the containers used, Gabbrielli along with Brakke designed a receptacle whose walls had an intricate form that would encourage and accommodate the Weaire-Phelan bubbles.  It was made in Trinity’s nanoscience institute, CRANN  and proved an instant success when of the right size were introduced into it.

“Wonderful!” says Weaire, now an Emeritus Professor in the School of Physics. “We shall call this the Italian Job.  It opens up a lot of further possibilities.”

In response to whether the new foam could be of any practical use: “Not immediately”, says Professor Stefan Hutzler, Head of the Foams and Complex Systems Research group in the School of Physics. “Let’s just admire its extraordinary beauty first.  But in solidified form and on various scales, such exotic ordered foams could find applications as chemical filters, heat exchangers and optical components.”

“It’d be interesting to come up with a proof of optimality,” Ruggero says.  “Scientists have been looking at this problem for quite a while, but a rigorous result is still missing.”

The paper reporting the fabrication of the Weaire-Phelan structure was accepted for publication in the time-honored science journal Philosophical Magazine Letters on the 25th of November 2011.  This is the same journal in which both Kelvin (in 1887) and Weaire and Phelan (in 1993) published their work on the of ideal foam.

Explore further: New, more versatile version of Geckskin: Gecko-like adhesives now useful for real world surfaces

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

New breakthrough in bubble research

Sep 02, 2009

A researcher from the University of Bath has found a new approach to an old geometric problem of modelling the most efficient way of packing shapes to form a foam.

China to launch space station module prototype

Aug 17, 2011

China’s space program is in the news again, this time with unconfirmed reports that the Tiangong 1 space lab may be launching into orbit sometime this year – possibly later this month.  Previous ...

Recommended for you

A greener source of polyester—cork trees

Apr 16, 2014

On the scale of earth-friendly materials, you'd be hard pressed to find two that are farther apart than polyester (not at all) and cork (very). In an unexpected twist, however, scientists are figuring out ...

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

3 / 5 (2) Dec 23, 2011
Foam physics ? I can usually manage a snot bubble at best, if I'm lucky.

I wonder if they've seen the timelapse videos of ferrofluid moving through soap foam. I'd be interested to see how it moves through that structure.
2.3 / 5 (3) Dec 23, 2011
The link to this study is here http://soft-matte...ap_films Apparently, the regularly arranged bubbles don't like the flat walls, so you should create them inside of a bumped wall vessel, which wouldn't destroy the regular structure at its boundaries. The structure of foam was subject of research from times of Kelvin, who believed it could explain the structure of aether, which is called the "quantum foam" by now.

More news stories

NASA's space station Robonaut finally getting legs

Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs. For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot—now stuck ...

Ex-Apple chief plans mobile phone for India

Former Apple chief executive John Sculley, whose marketing skills helped bring the personal computer to desktops worldwide, says he plans to launch a mobile phone in India to exploit its still largely untapped ...

Filipino tests negative for Middle East virus

A Filipino nurse who tested positive for the Middle East virus has been found free of infection in a subsequent examination after he returned home, Philippine health officials said Saturday.

Egypt archaeologists find ancient writer's tomb

Egypt's minister of antiquities says a team of Spanish archaeologists has discovered two tombs in the southern part of the country, one of them belonging to a writer and containing a trove of artifacts including reed pens ...