Tiny bubble study could improve dentists’ tools

Image credit: skynesher via Getty Images
Image credit: skynesher via Getty Images

People’s teeth-chattering experiences in the dentist’s chair could be improved by fresh insights into how tiny, powerful bubbles are formed by ultra-fast vibrations, a study led by the School of Engineering suggests.

The physics of how so-called nanobubbles are generated could have a range of clinical and industrial applications, including in dental hygiene devices used to remove plaque, the researchers say.

Their findings could also inform the development of other technologies – such as devices to selectively target tumour cells – that harness the energy released when the bubbles burst.

Bubble formation

Our engineers – led by Postdoctoral Research Associate Saikat Datta – ran complex supercomputer simulations to better understand the underlying mechanisms behind the formation of nanobubbles – which are tens of thousands of times smaller than a pinhead.

The team, who are based in the Institute of Multiscale Thermofluids, modelled the movement of individual molecules in a thin layer of water on a surface vibrating a million times faster than the flapping of a hummingbird’s wings.

Complex simulations

Their analysis revealed that nanobubbles can form either when vibrations cause the water to boil, or when the water pressure drops to a point where liquid becomes vapour – a process called cavitation.

Researchers ran their calculations using the ARCHER UK National Supercomputing Service, which is operated by EPCC, the University’s high-performance computing facility.

We now have a better understanding of how vibrations at the smallest scale can be exploited to produce nanobubbles. This work has a broad scope for future research and will help researchers devise new experiments to shed further light on the generation of nanobubbles.

The study was supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

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