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why use helium bubbles?

see the unseen

Air is invisible, but engineers in industry, government, and universities often need to “see” airflow patterns for several reasons.

Most people are aware of aerodynamic testing of autos or aircraft in wind tunnels, but not so familiar to the public are behind-the-scenes efforts to determine the flow patterns of the air cooling the electronics inside a computer or paper copier. Equally important is the efficiency of transporting conditioned air through ductwork and the uniform distribution of that same air throughout a room for a pleasant comfort level.

One way for the development or design engineer to see the air is to implant something into the moving air to reveal the flow’s direction and speed, which is essential to their tests. Historically, smoke has been a well-known method to trace airflow. Since smoke consists of a dense concentration of submicron-sized particles that are individually too small to be seen by the human eye, it works best when the airflow is smooth or “laminar.” Once the flow becomes turbulent, the tiny smoke particles separate appreciably or “dissipate,” and observable flow tracing deteriorates quickly.

Other methods have utilized short pieces of yarn, or tufts, mists created by mixing certain chemicals, carbon dioxide vapor, and liquid nitrogen mixed with steam to indicate the direction of moving air. These methods have one or more shortcomings.

However, a significant breakthrough came with the “practical” introduction of the helium-filled soap bubble technique of airflow visualization. Superior to the methods cited above, these small diameter bubbles “lock onto” the streamlines of the moving air because they have the same average mass and density as the air itself. In other words, they contain just enough helium to offset the weight of the bubble film, making them “neutrally buoyant.”

Sage Action, Inc. initiated the advancement of this technique under a contract with the Office of Naval Research. The equipment consists of a control console that meters compressed helium, a special-formula Bubble Film Solution (BFS), and compressed air at the proper flow rates to the “Plug-In Head.” The Plug-In Head is the component that, in turn, forms the bubbles in rapid succession at 300 to 400 bubbles per second. The Plug-In Head fits into a third component, the Mini-Vortex Filter, which takes out the “bad” bubbles that are too heavy or too light. The remaining bubbles exit the Filter and are ducted to the test area by a length of flexible plastic tubing.

The helium bubbles have a substantial life of one to two minutes or longer because of a plasticizer ingredient in the BFS. The neutral buoyancy characteristic provides the bubbles with the remarkable ability to negotiate rotating fans, even at high rpm, or to survive airspeeds up to transonic velocities. Flow visualization is possible since there is no relative motion between the bubble and the surrounding air.

For maximum visibility, it is best to illuminate the bubble stream with an intense light source and observe the streamlines perpendicular to the axis of the light beam against a dark background. If the light source is “pulsed” at a known frequency, the bubble traces result in distinct “dashes,” which can be measured to determine the velocity of the bubble and, therefore, the air. Sage Action provides this type of light source as well.

Because the bubble streamlines are well-defined, recording them is easy now with modern-day cameras: photograph or video the helium bubbles in action to document your flow tracing results.

SAI™ Helium Bubble Generators have countless applications. These applications have been very diverse, going far beyond any original expectations. They range from cars to high-performance aircraft, from computers to copiers, from home fans to commercial compressors, from pig pens to clean rooms, from baby diapers to photographic films, from office ceiling diffusers to marble mosque ventilators, from vacuum cleaners to lawnmowers, from paint booths to baby incubators, from hair dryers to industrial burners, from pea plants to pine trees and from parachutes to the Space Shuttle.

In summary, the arrival of the tough, little SAI™ neutrally buoyant soap bubble has enhanced the field of airflow visualization. With this unique capability, engineers can design or improve whole areas of our lives that depend on moving air, providing the quietness and the energy-smart features that are much needed today and into the future.

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