How-To: Make chemiluminescent soap bubbles

Fun & Games Science

No photos yet. That’s a homework assignment for the bubble chemists in the audience. But I couldn’t resist sharing my excitement over this paragraph from US patent 5,246,631 for glowing soap bubbles:

An example of practice of the present invention involves using a liquid dish such as LEMON JOY available from Procter & Gamble Company (Cincinnati, Ohio). Although the LEMON JOY may be diluted with varying amounts of water, it is preferred that the dishwashing liquid be used at full strength. Approximately 9 milliliters of CYALUME solution made in accordance with the manufacturers instructions are added to approximately 120 milliliters of the dishwashing liquid. Although this particular mixture may be used to produce adequate self-illuminated bubbles, it is preferred that 3 to 4 drops of glycerin be added to the solution as a bubble hardener. The solution is then ready for use to form self-illuminated bubbles.

I’ve never actually measured how much Cyalume (Wikipedia) is in a standard glow-stick, but I’m betting you could come up with 9 mL of the stuff by cutting open two or three at most.

22 thoughts on “How-To: Make chemiluminescent soap bubbles

  1. Paul H says:

    How is that patented? It just sounds like a recipe.

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      Why shouldn’t a recipe be patentable? If it’s both useful and novel?

  2. Mike says:

    According to the Wikipedia entry:

    “Glow sticks contain hydrogen peroxide, and phenol is produced as a by-product. It is advisable, therefore, to keep the mixture away from skin and to prevent accidental ingestion if the glow stick case splits or breaks. If spilled on skin the chemicals could cause slight skin irritation, swelling, or, in extreme circumstances, vomiting and nausea. Many ravers will cut or break open a glow stick and apply the glowing solution directly to bare skin in order to make their bodies glow. It has been said that glow stick chemicals cause cancer;[8] the phenol produced is toxic, corrosive, and a category 3 mutagen. Also it is wise to avoid all contact with thin membranes such as the eye or nasal area.”

    Probably not safe to have that floating around in bubble format then?

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      Chloraseptic liquid is 1.4% phenol, and you’re supposed to spritz it down your throat.

      You can gargle with 3% hydrogen peroxide. That’s what it’s sold for.

      And while I don’t know exactly what the concentrations of those guys are in the Cyalume/glowstick mix, it is clear from the recipe that, even if Cyalume were 50% phenol and 50% hydrogen peroxide (which it obviously is not), then 10-fold dilution with Lemon Joy would leave the resulting mixture at most 5% phenol and 5% hydrogen peroxide. Compare those concentrations to the formulations mentioned above approved by the FDA for oral use.

  3. Chris says:

    Despite my rambling below your best bet is to approach this like an explosive science experiment by keeping the bubbles away from people and pets until there’s some more light shed on the phenol issue. That is, just because I make some proposed calculations below, don’t risk running out and burning yourself with phenol. And certainly don’t blame me if you do.

    I had the same thoughts about the Wiki safety warnings and then I got thinking:

    I looked up the MSDS and the Oral Human Low Lethal Dosage for phenol is 140 mg/kg. The Skin LD-50 with rats is 669 mg/kg.

    The density of phenol is 1.07 g/ml => inverse = 0.000935 ml/mg

    Using a weight of 85 lbs or 38.5kg (a really small adult) and assuming we’d want to limit exposure to phenol to 1/1000th the rat skin LD-50 rate (too conservative? not conservative enough?) you’d need to limit the contact to 669 mg/kg *38.5kg*.000935 ml/mg*1/1000 = 0.024 ml of exposure

    That’s only partway to the answer though. Anyone know the answers to the rest of the questions below?

    Assuming you follow the original recipe: How much phenol is in 9 milliliters of glow stick solution? How many bubbles can you get from 129ml of glowing bubble solution (120 ml soap + 9ml glowing solution)? How many bubbles is your average person likely to have burst on their exposed skin?

    1. Chris says:

      Thought about this more. Given skin burns is probably more a of a concern than death comparing the concentration of phenol in the bubble recipe to the concentration needed to causes burning is probably more relevant.

  4. Trisaratops says:

    I had very luminescent bubble liquid, but when the bubbles were blown, they were pretty lackluster. I followed the recipe first, then tried it with an buttload of glowstick innards, just for the sake of argument. Never did get the full-on glowy bubble of my dreams. Anyone have different results?

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      I would love to see a photo if you got one. The bubbles were lackluster in that they did not glow brightly? Or that they didn’t form good bubbles? My own thought is that using almost pure dishwashing liquid for bubble blowing would mean bubbles that were way too heavy, that wouldn’t float very well and would tend to pop and splatter easily.

      1. Trisaratops says:

        I had plans to take a photo, but really got nothing photo-worthy. I had no problem making bubbles, but they weren’t very bright. I only got one that could even be seen in a dark room (whereas the bubble mixture was pretty bright). The bubbles themselves were fine- I made my own bubble wand with some bendy copper wire; it turned out to be the most successful part of the trial.

        I also had a similar experience to commenter below in that the bubble mixture glowed very brightly very quickly, then the glow quickly faded out.

        I guess given all the safety comments above that it’s worth mentioning that I suffered no ill effects. Despite my not insignificant amount of lab experience, I still got covered in glowstick insides and was much more chemiluminescent than my bubbles.

  5. David says:

    I tried this last night. Upon mixing the cyalume from the lightsticks into the dish detergent (Dawn in my case), the light output approximately doubled for about two or three minutes, then dropped to nil before I could blow any bubbles with the mixture. Apparently the dish soap accelerates the reaction, substantially shortening the glow time.

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I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

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