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Math of Popping Bubbles in a Foam

Berkeley Lab researchers mathematically describe the complex evolution and disappearance of foamy bubbles

May 9, 2013

Media Contacts:
UC Berkeley: Robert Sanders,, (510) 643-6998
Berkeley Lab: Linda Vu,, (510) 495-2404

Written By Robert Sanders

Bubble baths and soapy dishwater, the refreshing head on a beer, and the luscious froth on a cappuccino. All are foams, beautiful yet ephemeral as the bubbles pop one by one. Now, two researchers from the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) and the University of California, Berkeley have described mathematically the successive stages in the complex evolution and disappearance of foamy bubbles, a feat that could help in modeling industrial processes in which liquids mix or in the formation of solid foams such as those used to cushion bicycle helmets.

Applying these equations, they used supercomputers at DOE’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) to create mesmerizing computer-generated visualization showing the slow and sedate disappearance of wobbly foams one burst bubble at a time.

The applied mathematicians, James A. Sethian and Robert I. Saye, will report their results in the May 10 issue of Science. Sethian leads the Mathematics Group at Berkeley Lab and is a professor of Mathematics at UC Berkeley. Last month, Sethian was elected to the National Academy of Sciences. Saye will join Berkeley Lab’s Mathematics Group this September as a Luis W. Alvarez Fellow in Computing Sciences, and will graduate from UC Berkeley this May with a Ph.D. in applied mathematics.

“This work has application in the mixing of foams, in industrial processes for making metal and plastic foams, and in modeling growing cell clusters,” said Sethian. “These techniques, which rely on solving a set of linked partial differential equations, can be used to track the motion of a large number of interfaces connected together, where the physics and chemistry determine the surface dynamics.”

The problem with describing foams mathematically has been that the evolution of a bubble cluster a few inches across depends on what’s happening in the extremely thin walls of each bubble, which are thinner than a human hair.

“Modeling the vastly different scales in a foam is a challenge, since it is computationally impractical to consider only the smallest space and time scales,” Saye said. “Instead, we developed a scale-separated approach that identifies the important physics taking place in each of the distinct scales, which are then coupled together in a consistent manner.”

Saye and Sethian discovered a way to treat different aspects of the foam with different sets of equations that worked for clusters of hundreds of bubbles. One set of equations described the gravitational draining of liquid from the bubble walls, which thin out until they rupture. Another set of equations dealt with the flow of liquid inside the junctions between the membranes. A third set handled the wobbly rearrangement of bubbles after one pops. Using a fourth set of equations, the mathematicians solved the physics of a sunset reflected in the bubbles, taking account of thin film interference within the bubble membranes, which can create rainbow hues like an oil slick on wet pavement. Then they used NERSC’s Hopper Systems to solve the full set of equations of motion.

“Solving the full set of equations on a desktop computer would be time-consuming. Instead, we used massively parallel computers at NERSC and computed our results in a matter of days," said Saye.

“Foams were a good test that all the equations coupled together,” Sethian said. “While different problems are going to require different physics, chemistry and models, this sort of approach has applications to a wide range of problems.”

The mathematicians next plan to look at manufacturing processes for small-scale new materials.

“DOE’s longstanding support for core basic applied mathematics has been instrumental in providing the opportunities to develop the mathematics and algorithms behind this work,” said Sethian.

The work is supported by the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, the National Science Foundation, and the National Cancer Institute.


  • Multiscale Modeling of Membrane Rearrangement, Drainage, and Rupture in Evolving Foams (May 10, 2013 Science)
  • Sethian’s research web site

About Berkeley Lab

Founded in 1931 on the belief that the biggest scientific challenges are best addressed by teams, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and its scientists have been recognized with 16 Nobel Prizes. Today, Berkeley Lab researchers develop sustainable energy and environmental solutions, create useful new materials, advance the frontiers of computing, and probe the mysteries of life, matter, and the universe. Scientists from around the world rely on the Lab’s facilities for their own discovery science. Berkeley Lab is a multiprogram national laboratory, managed by the University of California for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

DOE’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit