Bubble findings aid cell research

By Amy Middleton with AAP 1 June 2010
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New insight into bubbles may help scientists to better study living cells.

FUN, FLOATING BUBBLES COULD hold the key to improving everything from ice-cream to mining — and even living body cells.

Scientists at the University of Melbourne say they have finally burst the mystery surrounding what happens when bubbles collide, and the discovery could hold wide-ranging implications across many industries. 

The team of chemical engineers, chemists and mathematicians measured the force between bubbles during a collision using nano-fabrication facilities and an atomic force microscope (AFM). The force between bubbles during collision was previously too small to measure, however advances in technology enabled the team to study the collisions at various speeds.

Technology measures tiny force

The outcome of the research was a new way to measure what happens when bubbles bounce off one another or stick together, which means they can predict what happens in a large range of other scenarios that have industrial applications.

Associate Professor Raymond Dagastine says that by understanding how bubbles both bounce off each other and mould together, it is possible to improve things like the stability of ice-cream and bubbles in champagne. “The findings could also be used to improve water waste treatment and increase efficiency in the mining industry,” he told Australian Geographic.

Research team member Professor Derek Chan agrees, and says that the findings could also eventually be used to study the behaviours of living cells in bodies.

Bubbles translate to living cells

Raymond says that the team’s study represents a simple system that may also reflect how droplets of oil, and even living cells, move in liquid. “Cells are much more complicated, but some of the key physical processes are similar to bubbles,” he says.

The study, conducted with bubbles in salty water, is based around what happens when soft things bump into each other and sometimes change shape. “We worry about how red blood cells bump into each other or become deformed. This reaction is the same combination of physics that happens with bubbles,” says Raymond. The same scientific tools and processes are used to study cells.

The research was published online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) this week. The project also included researchers from the Institute of Materials Research and Engineering (IMRE), Institute of High Performance Computing (IHPC) and Institute of Chemical and Engineering Sciences (ICES) in Singapore.