Posts Tagged ‘nucleation’

Soda fountain science explained

Thursday, June 19th, 2008

Picture by Michael Murphy (CC-BY-SA)

The soda fountain (Diet Coke + Mentos) has been around the net for quite a while with some spectacular videos available, and it has even made it into a news paper cartoon. People go crazy about this and the largest number of simultaneous fountains is steadily increasing.

Despite the interest, only now did a scientific paper appear on the subject. Many have speculated about what causes the reaction between Mentos and Diet Coke, and some have focused on possible acid-base reactions taking place. Mythbusters investigated this in 2006 (watch episode) and came up with the following factors that contribute to the bubble formation:

Diet coke

  • carbon dioxide is what makes the bubbles form in the first place
  • in synthetic mixtures aspartam, caffeine and potassium benzoate where shown give better fountains


  • the most important property is the rough surface which provides plenty of nucleation sites for bubble formation
  • the density makes them sink which is ideal as the bubbles formed at the bottom of the bottle help expel much more soda
  • mentos contains gelatin and gum arabic which could also reduce surface tension

In the paper “Diet Coke and Mentos: What is really behind this physical reaction?” by Tonya Shea Coffey the findings of the Mythbuster teams are largely confirmed.

By measuring contact angles it was shown that aspartame and potassium benzoate reduce the surface tension of water. Aspartame is a winner, and as an extra benefit clean up is much easier with Diet Coke than sugared Coke. The amount of caffeine however is too low to have any effect. The roughness of the Mentos surface was studied with special microscopes (see picture below). Fruit Mentos have smooth patches, but the coating is not uniform and contrary to the Mythbuster experiment normal Mentos and Fruit Mentos performed equally well with regards to foam formation. The roughness of the Mentos surface was inbetween that of rock salt and the Life savers which suggests that roughness is not a single factor determining the reaction. The Mentos surface is covered with gum arabic which reduces surface tension, and experiments showed that even without Mentos, gum arabic could cause a reaction to occur. It is the combined effects of reduced surface tension (due to ingredients in Diet Coke and Mentos) and the rough surface of Mentos which is the key to understand the reaction.

As expected, the article also confirms that the reaction is more vigours at higher temperatures (i.e. solubility of carbon dioxide deacreases with increasing temperature). It was also shown that Mentos sink faster to the bottom of a 2 L bottle compared with rock salt, Wint-O-Green Life savers and sand (this is a function of size and density, not only density). When bubbles are formed at the bottom of the bottle the bubble has more time to grow as it rises. This causes a more explosive reaction and more soda is expelled from the bottle.

The picture shows scanning electron microscopy images of Mint Mentos (a) and (c) and Fruit Mentos with a candy coating (b) and (d). The scale bars in each image represent the lengths (a) 200 μm, (b) 100 μm, (c) 20 μm, and (d) 20 μm. Fruit Mentos has smooth patches, but the coating is not uniform. (Reprinted with permission from Coffey, T. S, American Journal of Physics, Vol. 76, Issue 6, pp. 551-557, 2008. Copyright 2008, American Association of Physics Teachers)

The question which lingers on my mind is whether Diet Coke and Mentos represent the optimal combination of ingredients to create a soda fountain. With regard to convenience, I guess the answer is yes. But perhaps it’s possible to create an even more powerful reaction? Since lowering the surface tension of water is important, I’m wondering if it would be possible to find a surfactant that could be added without setting the reaction off? Mentos would of course still be needed for the rough surface to provide nucleation sites. In the above mentioned study addition of diluted dish washing liquid was enough to give a pretty good reaction, so this is not an option. But perhaps a couple of drops right on the Mentos surface would work? I definitely need to try this some time.

Ice cubes and air bubbles

Sunday, April 13th, 2008

Ice cubes are used both to cool drinks, but also to significantly impact the flavour of certain drinks. No matter your motivation, you should never use “old” ice cubes which have been sitting in your freezer for a while. Why? Melt some “old” ice cubes and taste the water. You’ll smell why! The reason is that volatile compounds in your freezer slowly find their way into the ice cubes which for some reason mostly are made in trays without a cover. But as I surfed around, researching this post I discovered that oxo and other producers now sell ice cube trays with lids. That’s a small step forward!

Another thing about ice cubes is that they look nice. I admit that air bubbles can sometimes be quite beautiful (and even artistic when pictured with a macro lens as above), but there are times when I whish I could make perfectly clear ice cubes. At room temperature a certain amount of air is dissolved in water. When you cool water, the solubility of air increases (!), but only until the water starts freezing. At this point the water can no longer keep the air dissolved and a bubble is formed. Vice versa – when you boil water the solubility of air decreases and the dissolved gases escape.

When making ice cubes, the bubbles that are formed can easily escape as long as there is no ice blocking their way. This is sort of a catch 22 situation since the air expulsion is directly related to the ice formation. When making ice cubes in a normal freezer, the ice cubes are cooled from the outside, causing the air to get trapped throughout the ice cube.

Many people have thought about smart ways to achieve this (as a quick patent search shows). There are two strategies to obtain clear ice cubes. Let the gas escape while the water freezes or degas and filter the water before freezing. Icicles are a good example that when running water freezes, it normally produces very clear ice. This is utilized in commercial ice cube makers. Here a “cold finger” is exposed to water that moves. This way bubbles are carried away before they can get trapped. These ice cubes typically are ring or cup shaped. The second method is suggested many places on the net. I’ve listed them here together with some thoughts and discussion.

Degas the water (i.e. remove the dissolved air). This is easily done by boiling the water for a couple of minutes and letting it cool again. Some webpages suggest that the process should be repeated for best results.

Slow cooling
If the water is cooled too quickly, the ice will not be able to push the impurities ahead of the freezing interface. But if an ice cube freezes from all sides it doesn’t really help as the bubbles get trapped in the middle. A drawback with slow cooling is that the solubility of gas will increase when the water is cooled and so it will allow more gas to dissolve before the water freezes. So slow cooling should probably be combined with some kind of gas tight cover.

Directional cooling
I’ve been pondering about making trays with insulated sides and cover and a metal base, thereby utilizing the fact that metals are superb heat conductors compared to plastic, wood or glass. The metal would then serve to conduct away heat from the water. Bubbles would form on the ice front, but they would probably escape, rather than become encapsuled into the ice. I’ve tried to illustrate it here:

Turns out that someone has actually patented something similar where metal “fingers” are used to conduct away heat from the center, giving ring shaped ice cubes. Does anyone know if these were ever made for sale? Perhaps an ice cube tray in aluminum would work if one insulates the top so that the cubes freeze from the bottom and up, keeping the water on top free flowing so bubbles can escape.

Layer-by-layer method
There might be a simple (but time consuming) way of achieving directional cooling: By building up the ice cubes layer by layer. Once the first layer is frozen this will help freeze the next layer from the bottom up and so on. I guess layers of 1-5 mm would work, but this needs more testing. My experiments so far have not been very promising. Plenty of bubbles, even with a layer of only 2 mm.

Particles can act as nucleation sites for air bubbles. To avoid this filter the water and make sure that all the equipment is clean. Also, don’t use a towel to try your equipment as this will probably leave small fibers behind.

Remove salts
Both tap water and bottled water contain trace amounts of salts. When water freezes these minerals are not incorporated into the ice structure. As a consequence the soluble salts will concentrate in the water that’s not yet frozen. In the end there is so little water left that the concentration of the salts becomes sufficiently high so that the freezing point of this remaining water is lower than the temperature in the freezer (meaning that this water won’t freeze). Other salts, especially calcium salts such as calcium carbonate will precipitate. And these particles can act as nucleation sites. If after boiling water there are particles present, these should be filtered away before freezing. The easiest way to get rid of salts is to use distilled water.

I’ve done a couple of experiments and it seems there is no quick fix. The water in the ice cubes pictured above was boiled for several minutes before freezing, but plenty of bubbles formed as you can see. I also tried the layer-by-layer method, but even in a thin layer of only 2-3 mm I could detect many bubbles. So clearly I need to do more experiments.

What are your experiences with making clear ice cubes?

Happy New Year with the Science of Champagne!

Sunday, December 31st, 2006

Have you ever though about how far you can shoot a champagne cork? The swedish physicist Hans-Uno Bengtsson has actually done the necessary calculations in the wonderful Swedish book “Kring flaskor och fysik” (which translates to something like “Among bottles and physics”, it was written together with sommelier Mischa Billing). Assuming a bottle pressure of 6 atmospheres, a cork length of 25 mm (the part in contact with the bottle), a radius of 9 mm and a mass of 7.5 g, this gives an initial cork velocity of approximately 20 meters per second or 70 km/h! This translates into a maximum shot length of around 40 m (if we neglect air resistance). In case you prefer not to shoot the cork, you could of coarse turn to a saber or a heavy kitchen knife instead to open the bottle.

When opening a bottle of champagne, you might have noticed the cloud forming right above the bottle neck (see picture below). This is due to a significant temperature drop, caused by gas expansion when we open the bottle. Assuming an adiabatic expansion (meaning no heat exchange with the surroundings), Hans-Uno Bengtsson has calculated a temperature drop of 112 °C! No wonder the vapor around the bottle neck immediately freezes forming a small cloud.

cloud at neck of champagne bottle
(picture by polarunner at

If this doesn’t satisfy your craving for champagne science, there’s a whole book on the subject: “Uncorked – The Science of Champagne” by Gérard Liger-Belair. He’s an associate professor of physical sciences at the University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne and probably knows more about champagne bubbles than anyone else! In addition to many fascinating pictures of bubbles, the book has many interesting facts. Did you know that:

  • 0.1 liters of champagne (the contets of an average flute) contains approximately 0.7 liters of carbon dioxide which must escape to restore equillibrium – assuming an average bubble size of 500 micrometers in diameter this corresponds to 11 million bubbles!
  • Contrary to popular belief, nucleation sites for bubbles are not found on scratches or irregularities on the glass itself, but on impurites stuck on the glass wall. These impurities are typically fibres from paper or fabrics.
  • From the point when a bubble leaves the nucleation site till it reaches the surface, the volume increases by a factor of 1 million. This is due to diffusion of carbon dioxide from the solution and into the bubble.
  • Surfactant molecules in champagne form a protective shield around the rising bubbles. This stiffens the bubbles and significantly increases the drag on the bubble as it rises (which gives us more time to admire the trail of bubbles!).
  • The surfactant coating of the bubbles helps keeping them in line as they rise. In pure water, the bubbles would jostle around.
  • The bursting bubbles play an imporant role in flavor release as they collect and concentrate surface active molecules which are thrown against your nose once the bubble bursts, creating a cloud of droplets.
  • (these facts should be perfect conversation starters!)

    trail of champagne bubbles
    (photo by Gérard Liger-Belair)

    An interesting article by Gérard Liger-Belair, “Effervescence in a glass of champagne: A bubble story” is available from Europhysics news.

    Happy New Year!