Tiny Bubbles in the Water and Nucleation Site
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Tiny Bubbles in the Water and Nucleation Site

Not the song by legendary Hawaiian crooner the late Don Ho, but tiny bubbles in an effervescent beverage. There is more to these tiny bubbles than just ‘dissolved gases’ in the liquid. And as the song goes, yes, '... they make me happy/make me feel fine.'

Tiny Bubbles in the Water?

"I hate that song" singer/performer Don Ho often told the crowd at his Waikiki, Hawaii show. For over four decades he performed his kitsch stage act for tourists with jokes, song, and Hawaiian history and of course, his quintessential trademark song “Tiny Bubbles."

He usually performed the song twice in his show he said because ‘people my age can’t remember if we did it or not.’

Maybe crooner Ho was talking about the bubbles in the Hawaiian surf coming from volcanic pumice in the water which does in fact, exude ‘tiny bubbles.’ -Or maybe he was talking about the tiny bubbles in a glass of Champagne?

Nucleation Point

This got me wondering; what exactly causes those ‘tiny bubbles’ that stream and emanate from a very specific point in the glass in carbonated and effervescent beverages anyway? It is more than just carbon dioxide or other dissolved gases in the liquid.

What causes bubbles to stream from a specific point in a glass?

Carbon Dioxide and PET Plastics: Have You Ever Noticed This?

When bottled seltzer and soft drinks with fizziness are served, the carbonated liquid bubbles more when served in polyethylene terephthalate or "PET" plastic cups. Superior for retention of CO2 gases, PET plastic keeps the fizz in and provide maximum bubbles on the inside surfaces of the container, moreso than if served in other containers. This is why carbonated drinks seem ‘fizzier’ when served in a plastic cup than they do when served in a glass mug.

Still, some high-quality glassware produces more bubbles in the drink than just the relatively uniformly-spaced carbon dioxide bubbles than plastic drinking cups do.

Fizzy Taste and Carbonation are not the Same Thing

Beverages with carbonation (soda pop, seltzers, beer, etc.) that have a ‘bite’ to them are sometimes incorrectly attributed to their carbonation.

The ‘fizzy taste’ comes from a diluted carbonic acid added to the drink. Notably, the two major cola products Coca Cola and Pepsi are more ‘bitey’ and both are noted for containing slightly more carbonic acid than other carbonated soft drinks to achieve this quality. It’s not the bubbles that causes the ‘bite’ but the carbonic acid they contain.

This has been shown by drinking a ‘fizzy drink’ in a hyperbaric chamber at the same pressure of the beverage does something strange, no bubbles are present in the freshly-opened can or bottle yet the drink still retains that ‘fizzy’ quality.

But what causes the bubbles to ‘spawn’ from a particular spot on the inside of the glass? It is as if the sidewalls of the goblet or glass were ‘leaking’ air into the cup like a submarine with a pinhole leaking air.

Nucleation and the Never-Ending Fizz

carbonated liquid, showing tiny bubbles clinging to the sides of the glass or bottle

(image source)

Nucleation in carbonated liquid is the result of the localized ‘budding’ of gaseous bubbles from suspended particles or minute bubbles that adhered to the sidewalls of the container, forming a ‘nucleation site.’

Nucleation is what causes raindrops to fall from the sky (having ‘budded’ around either a microscopic terrestrial or meteoric dust particle in the air.)

Nucleation is also what makes cloud-seeding work, forcing water droplets in the air to precipitate out as rain.

Trying to boil distilled water in a vessel with very smooth surfaces (no scratches, etc.) will cause a violent and sudden release of steam, throwing water up and out of the container. The use of ‘boiling chips’ is used in the lab to boil reagents and prevent these super-heated splashes from occurring from the glass flasks being used to boil a liquid.

Freezing distilled water causes a bizarre reaction too. The water won’t really ‘freeze’ until you tap the bottle to cause a rapid cascading nucleation. There are videos on YouTube that poignantly show this amazing reaction.

While water will freeze at 00C (320F) under ordinary conditions because it contains innumerable nucleation particles (dust, dissolved minerals and salts, etc,) pure distilled water is free of these debris and thus freezes at at a much colder temperture, -420C (-410F.)

Other examples of nucleation are shown in the growing of crystals, and making of rock candy whereby crystals form around a nucleation point and grow larger. An extreme example of nucleation is the Diet Coke and Mentos Candy eruption experiment.

Can A Nucleation Point be Artificially Created to Enhance the Appearance of a Carbonated or Fermented Beverage?

Yes! After the initial burst of fizziness when an effervescent beverage comes into contact with a dry glass, has been shown to fizz more if the glass has been wiped with a clean cloth prior to filling with beverage.

It is believed that microscopic particles of cellulose are deposited by the cloth and form additional nucleation points in the glass. This makes the introduction of fizzy beverage ‘more fizzy.’

Microscopic imperfections in the smoothness of the glass cause the majority of regular nucleation points, but there are also artificial manufactured ways to create artificial nucleation sites on drink ware such as acid-etching and/or laser etching!

An acid or laser etched nucleation point on the interior surface of a glass drinking cup provides a source of continuing effervescence which persists longer than the initial fizziness of the beverage. This continued fizziness can give the impression of the drink being of higher quality and thus, more appreciated by the patron. The drink does not appear to ‘go flat’ as quickly.

I have a short-stemmed beer goblet that has a very obvious and well-defined etching (either acid or laser) in the very bottom of the cup at the point where it attaches to the stem. A steady stream of super-minute bubbles are always present in beer and every soda pop that I have tried so far.

Even after that first sip or two that dissipates most of the bubbles from the insides of the goblet, that central point continues to endlessly steam a column of very fine bubbles. That is the artifically-created 'nucleation site,' created with by acid etching or by a laser mark.

Tiny bubbles of happiness indeed!

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Comments (4)



A very scientific approach in explaining 'tiny little bubbles'. Well written and informative article.

A very informative and well crafted article. Thank you.