Facts are stranger than fiction, and so are soap bubbles.
These apparently inconspicuous objects are utterly intriguing to children of the world – irrespective of differences in nationality, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status; and to a short list of adults, featuring Leonardo da Vinci, Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Pierre-Gilles de Gennes. Recently, Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck received the prestigious 2019 Abel Prize and Alessio Figalli the 2018 Fields medal – both pioneered mathematics on soap films and bubbles.
What mystery is then camouflaged as soap bubbles, which mesmerizes the extremities of the intellectual spectrum – the nascent and the scientific genius?
The answer can perhaps be sought at the crossroads of cognitive neuro psychology, and the fascinating materials science of aqueous soft matter nanocomposites. A soap film is perhaps the simplest synthetic archetype, modelling living matter which is constructed with building blocks of function and memory composed of nanoscale water scaffolded to macromolecules like proteins and DNA.
Generally – A soap bubble is a temporary gas compartment, enveloped by a thin semipermeable membrane, made out of a soap film.
Looking deeper, a common soap film is a soft matter nanocomposite uniquely characterized by a proton-conducting, flexible, semipermeable, and quasi 2-D aqueous phase, which doubles as a smooth substrate for two self-assembled surfactant monolayers on its opposite surfaces.
Synthetic surfactant molecules comprise lipid tails with hydrophilic head groups, and they are traditionally designed for use as detergents or colloidal stabilizers. The scope of modifying electronic, opto-electronic, catalytic, and organic molecules for chemical and biological sensing, to create new surfactants is wide open. The development of new surfactant class materials and deciphering the characteristics of water in nanoscale are expected to empower soap film based biomimetic future technology. The recent emergent developments in the science of soap films and sudden global attention to the particular material architecture, is a testament to an accelerating momentum in the subject- an example of a fundamental breakthrough being the observation of branched flow phenomenon of light within a soap film. ,
The EU Commission has recently funded two (SoFiA and PROGENY) coveted future and emerging technology (FET) grants to soap film/foam-based core technology development projects. The impact of these developments is envisioned to have globally transformative social outcomes. With the success of the projects, human civilization may complete the full evolutionary cycle in materials-based technology which began with the use of earth, air, and fire, to develop ceramics, metals and semiconductors, culminating with the scientific understanding of nanoscale water scaffolded in living matter and its technological use. Science will perhaps then be able to cross over to research in psychosomatics. Furthermore, the use of something as simple as soap film in high fidelity technology, making life simpler and society better, will be perception altering. Extensive day-to-day use of such technologies in the future will strengthen the social focus on the importance of water as “a material of value”.
Project PROGENY is a case study:
The 21st century has seen an unprecedented proliferation of electronic devices, dramatically altering the world economic map and human social behavior, while creating socioeconomic and environmental burdens in form of energy consumption and massive electronic wastes. Not only does e-waste contain significant amounts of toxic substances such as lead, cadmium, mercury, and brominated flame-retardants, but its informal disposal and low technology recycling also generate additional toxic pollutants. The problem is appended by the environmental and sociopolitical suffering created due to mining for rare earth and other electronic materials. To gauge the magnitude of the problem, consider that 53.6 million tons of e-waste generated globally in 2019 –a number that is likely to skyrocket as consumers replace their old devices with the newest 5G-ready gadgets by 2021.
Clearly, the electronic industry is indispensable, but unsustainable, thereby demanding immediate sustainable innovations – in materials and in device design: PROGENY initiates both.
The project derives its rationale from the fascinating membrane properties and charge & mass transport properties of a small soap film. PROGENY is developing electronic soap molecules designed to significantly reduce surface tension in aqueous solution, self- assemble at water-gas interfaces, and mechanically stabilize a new class of electronic soap films. These new soap molecules will then be used to develop sustainable Proto-Opto-Electro-Mechanical Systems (POEMS) for future bio-mimetic devices and sensors.
The risk of popping a soap film is approached with a completely different outlook -that of a conceptual dynamic stability. The soap film can be continuously regenerated. Furthermore, a small soap film can be stabilized almost indefinitely under proper design of a frame, arresting evaporation, and by controlling the environment (for example temperature, pressure, gas interface). Afterall, almost a century ago James Dewar had kept a soap film disk with a diameter of 19 cm for over three years!
Man has created the machine in his own perceived image. It has brought him immense power to compensate for his limitations in his quest to dominate over nature. In the process, civil society has gradually disidentified from its natural environment which hosts and nurtures it. It is an irony that the machine today acts as a mirror reflecting both the power and the irresponsible myopia in human technological endeavors. Today we stand at the crossroads of our creative actions where rekindling the spirit of the renaissance man has become an absolute social necessity. The stark choice is between balancing humanity’s audacious leap into the future by embracing nature in a responsible symbiosis, or to perish along with it as a result of its anthropogenic destruction.
Fortunately, there are among us many torchbearers who have the courage to dream of not only a clean and sustainable future but also an overwhelmingly empowering one fueled by our established global connectedness and power to create together. Moving beyond the urge to subjugate and dominate they evoke the tone of harmony in contrast to domination – collimating their efforts into teams building smart civilizations on harmonious technological foundations.
Some are dreaming of a clean and noise free society by 2050 with the dawn of the new age of aqueous soft matter nanotechnology: Devices working on resistance free ballistic transport and superconductivity, unconventional quantum computers, sensors and micro machines that emulate insects, and water desalination and air purification technologies using soft matter membranes, are some of the ideas floating around. These ideas will lead to bio-mimetic devices and machines for everyday use, working like clear mirrors, reflecting the vitality of life and bringing us closer to our selves and to others in interconnectedness.