JULY 2014: We are in the midst of a major revision of this page and the related Polymers articles to bring the information up-to-date especially with respect to PEO.
Most bubble-juice makes use of one or more polymers to make it easy to close bubbles. It is generally challenging to make closed bubbles with a simple water and soap solution. For reasons that are not clear, adding the right polymer to a water and soap (or detergent) solution makes it simple to blow a stream of bubbles or close giant bubbles with a tri-string wand. Read more about the role of polymers in Bubble Juice Basics.
Polymers are simply large molecules made up of chains of individual identical units called monomers. They can be natural or synthetic. They are critical components of any bubble juice and can provide a number of important qualities. They are often used in dishwashing liquid and shampoos and food stuffs to provide viscosity. When making bubble juice, it is often convenient to use easily found household products (such as KY Jelly Personal Lubricant or even commercial bubble juice) as a polymer source.
Many bubble juice recipes use pure polymers (such as PEO, HEC or guar gum powders), but there are also many popular recipes that make use of polymer-containing lubricants (personal lubricants and/or medical lubricants). The latter recipes are popular because the ingredients are sometimes more readily available locally than the more exotic pure polymers. The popular BLM bubble additive makes use of both a pure polymer and surgical lubricant.
What do they do? The precise role that polymers play is a mystery. Despite widespread belief, numerous experiments have shown that polymer benefit is not directly related to viscosity. Some polymers are highly effective without changing the viscosity significantly while others are only effective at levels that result in very viscous juice. As far as we know, no one yet understands the polymer role well enough to predict its benefits by looking at polymer characteristics. Trial-and-error is currently used to determine which polymers work well and what properties they bring with them.
The more the merrier? The interactions between polymers is somewhat unpredictable. Combining polymers does not necessarily result in a mix that has the cumulative benefits of the individual polymers. See Multi-Polymer Mixes to learn about this topic.
Polymers and Molecular Weight
Chemical formulas generally provide information about the relative number of the atoms that make up a chemical. Polymers are made up of repeated chains of their base unit (called the monomer). Many polymers can come in a variety of chain lengths, and the actual chain length can determine the molecule's properties. The polymer's formula does not tell you about the chain length or the way that the units are linked together. Some polymers' chains can be linked together in a few different ways which is sometimes relevant to the polymer properties.
In most cases, a polymer's properties are strongly linked to its molecular weight (which is the the weight of the atoms that make up the complete molecule). The viscosity associated with a polymer is often a factor of the molecule's molecular weight rather than the amount of polymer being used. For example, the viscosity of 1% PEO solution will be different for different molecular weights of PEO.
In some cases, the monomers can be arranged in different ways and some polymer properties may be determined by how they are arranged in addition to the molecular weight. For this reason, when mixing up a recipe, it is important to use the particular version of the polymer called for or to substitute a version that is known to have similar properties.
PEO AND PEG. PEO and PEG have the same formula but are generally used to indicate different ranges of molecular weights. Even molecules called PEO can very significantly by molecular weight.
An analogy. If we described house by the ratios of bedrooms to bathrooms, a house that had 60 bedrooms and 30 bathrooms would have the same "formula" as a house with 2 bedrooms and 1 bathroom. They would both be bedroom(2)bathroom(1) even though one has 90 rooms and the other 3 rooms. So, we might use room count to distinguish between the two houses. This is more-or-less equivalent to how molecular weight works. Even knowing the number of bedrooms and bathrooms does not tell you anything about the arrangement of the rooms. For some molecules, there is only one possible arrangement of the component atoms, but some polymers of a particular molecular weight can vary by structure. In some cases, the the structure does not matter but in others it may.
Personal lubricants and medical lubricants tend to be mixes of polymers (often cellulose-based), water and glycerine and/or propylene glycol. They are popular ingredients in some homebrew bubble juice recipes.
Many water-soluble personal and surgical lubricants feature a cellulose-based polymer (cellulose gums) as the primary gelling agent. HPMC and HEC are the most frequently used polymers in this class of products. While these products are often convenient because of availability, they are quite expensive compared to pure polymers in the long run.
As the sole polymer source in bubble juice, HEC-based lubricants (KY Jelly and its knockoffs) appear to be more effective than the HPMC-based products such as Surgilube.
Surgilube which is currently popular among bubblers an ingredient of the popular BLM bubble juice additive contains Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose (HPMC) as well as propylene glycol, polypropylene glycol, acetic acid, sodium acetate, propylene oxide and other ingredients. The acetic acid/sodium acetate combination is probably used to buffer the lube's pH. Some preliminary (very preliminary as of Feb. 2011) work done by Edward Spiegel indicates that Surgilube behaves almost as if it were the equivalent of a 10% to 12% K15M solution (a type of HPMC sold by Dow Chemical) solution. While it certainly is not such a concentrated solution as that, it may give a starting point for adjusting Surgilube-based recipes to straight HPMC solutions and vice versa. More serious study needs to be given to this issue. There is considerable debate between bubblers as to whether SurgiLube makes a significant difference when used in PEO-based mixes and whether BLM (a combination of water, Surgilube and J-Lube) is superior to a straight J-Lube and water solution. Many people substitute a KY Jelly type lubricant when they cannot find Surgilube, though some insist that the two behave significantly differently.
KY jelly personal lubricant and its knockoffs (which seem to work just as well in making bubble solutions) are based on Hydroxyethyl Cellulose (HEC). It also contains glycerine and other compounds in its ingredients which may also play a role. 1 tablespoon of KY and its knock-offs weighs about 15 grams. These lubes are very viscous and water soluble.
USAGE HINTS: Because of their gel-like consistency, lubes can require a bit of work to dissolve/integrate into solution. Glowby describes a great technique for mixing them with water here. It is best to use very warm to hot water to aid in fully dissolving lube especially when adding a lot of lube in relation to the amount of water. If left long enough (if the solution is not oversaturated with lube) undissolved clumps often dissolve themselves. Make sure that it is fully dissolved before adding the detergent. If it is not fully dissolved, you will often get a layer of undissolved lube at the bottom of your container. Undissolved clumps of lube may hamper successful bubbling. Some lubes will not fully dissolve when there is a large concentration of lube in relation to water. In these cases, it is best to add a little very warm to hot water and stir -- adding a little extra water as needed to dissolve. When adding smaller concentrations, room temperature water will work to eventually dissolve the lube although very warm water works better. If the lube does not completely dissolve with stirring, it will be easy to dissolve after being left to hydrate for a few hours (as long as it doesn't get below about 70 degrees Fahrenheit) at which point stirring will complete the mixing.
Both Surgilube and the KY-style lubricants contain Chlorhexidine Gluconate which is a chemical antiseptic and may increase the shelf-life of bubble juice that contains these products..
In homebrew recipes, one finds a fairly wide range of suggestions as to how much of these compounds should be added. See the Recipes section for some examples.
J-Lube is a veterinary lubricant made of 25% high molecular weight PEO and 75% table sugar which acts as a dispersant. It comes in powder form and is one of the most important polymer sources for home bubble brewers. For detailed information see the PEO article. As little as 1/2 gram of fresh J-Lube is needed to make a gallon of bubble juice.
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The lubricants mentioned above are useful in bubble juice because they contain polymers which help in the creation of long chains that make it easier to form complete bubbles and may add additional qualities such as strength or the ability to self-heal. In home-brewed bubble solutions, commonly-used polymers are the same as those that are used in the lubricants mentioned above. The most-commonly used polymers are:
- PEO (polyethylene oxide). An polymer available in a wide range of viscosities (molecular weights). It is considered by some to be the most effective polymer for making giant bubbles. (See below ).
- HEC '(Hydroxyethyl Cellulose). This is a very effective bubble polymer. The Dow Chemical company has a family of HEC products called Cellosize that have varied molecular weights and properties.This is the polymer found in KY-Jelly type lubes. In recipes, it can be used as the sole additive or in combination with other polymers. It is also used in some commercial bubble mixes. Edward notes that some of his best super giants have been created with an HEC-only mix. See the main HEC article.
- Guar Gum (also called Guaran or guarkernmehl). This is a naturally derived polymer that is widely available and quite effective. See the main Guar Gum article. The current and pending world record free-floating bubbles were both made with guar gum based bubble juice.
- HPMC (Hydroxypropyl Methylcellulose). The Dow Chemical company has a family of HPMC products called MethoCel that have varied molecular weights and properties. This is the polymer used in SurgiLube. It is similar in characteristics to HEC. It is effective but does not seem as effective or as useful a primary polymer as PEO, HEC or guar gum. In recipes, it can be used as the sole additive or in combination with other polymers.
- CMC (Sodium CarboxyMethylCellulose). Like HEC, HPMC and MethylCellulose, this is a cellulose gum. It has been suggested on SBF, the Soap Bubble Fanciers Yahoo Group (RIP), that this may be the most effective cellulose gum for bubble making although no specific recipes have been offered as of the date of writing (July 2011). Like the other cellulose gums, this comes in a variety of molecular weights/viscosities. It has been suggested that only so-called high viscosity types are worth exploring. Although, this claim has not been tested. There are two main brands of CMC, Ashland's Aqualon line and Dow's Walocel line. Doubling the concentration results in an eight to tenfold increase in viscosity. [QUESTION: does HEC have a similar relationship?] Walocel CRT 40000 has a viscosity of approximately 6,000 mPas at 1% an 35,000 to 50,000 at 2%. Aqualon 7H has a range of 1,500 to 3,000 mPas at 1%. 7H4 has a range of 2,500 to 5,000 at 1%. These viscosity ranges are similar to high viscosity type HEC (see below).
- PAM (polyacrylamide) - (added September 2018). Over the years there have been some reports (without specifics) that polyacrylamide can be effective ingredient for bubble juice. RogerH3 has posted some specifics. This appears to be an inexpensive and very effective polymer based on his initial trials. Try it out. See Roger's post: PAM - a new polymer for bubble juice .
- Sodium Polyacrylate - (added January 2021). Sodium polyacrylate has become a very common polymer for Japanese bubblers. See the post: Japanese Soap Bubble (Dec.2020) .
PEO (polyethylene oxide) is a long-chain polymer and in some forms is called Polyethylene Glycol (PEG, for short). Not all PEO is suitable for making bubbles. For bubbling purposes PEO and PEG are not equivalent for reasons described below. As with all polymers, the molecule is a chain of identical or near-identical units called monomers. The length of the PEO polymer chain determines its properties and usefulness. The chain length is usually communicated as molecular weight: the mass of the atoms that make up a single polymer chain.
For making bubbles, relatively high molecular weight versions are preferred. Low molecular weight PEO is either ineffective or not very effective as a primary bubble juice polymer. The most popular versions of PEO for use in bubble juice are PolyOx WSR-301 and J-Lube (which is actually a mix of high molecular weight PEO and sucrose which acts as a dispersant). These both have a molecular weight of approximately 4,000,000.
PEO has remarkable characteristics. It radically improves the elasticity and self-healingness of a soap bubble skin's which enables the creation of large to giant bubbles. It turns a dilute dish detergent/water combination into a big bubble-making powerhouse. Of the polymers documented here, it has the most profound impact and is only needed in very small quantities. In recipes, it can be used as the sole additive or in combination with other polymers.
PEO VS. PEG. PEO and PEG molecules have the same molecular formula. However, PEG, by convention, refers to low molecular versions and PEO is reserved for high molecular weight molecules. As a result PEG is not generally considered useful for bubble juice.
Visit the main PEO page for much more information.
It is used by many bubblers in conjunction with PEO as a secondary polymer in giant bubble solution. It can be used on its own for making very effective small/medium wand solutions without PEO.
Some claim that it improves the flow of a PEO-containing solution and others that it seems to improve the bubble strength. A lot of bubblers user solutions that contain PEO and HPMC succesfully. There are many videos of such solutions found in this wiki. However, there are some people that claim that a PEO solution will perform better without HPMC. This is a somewhat controversial claim and testing needs to be done to find out whether this is true or whether this is true in some particular conditions. About 1 gram of this ingredient per gallon of bubble juice seems to be about the average dosage when used along with PEO to make bubble juice for creating big bubbles. Quite a bit more needs to be used if HPMC is the sole additive -- typically for making bubble juice for use with small/medium type wands.
Testing needs to be done to determine how that dosage maps to SurgiLube dosage (since no data is available as to how much HPMC/ounce is used in surgilube). HPMC is available in various formulations and molecular weights. Some versions have been treated to be cold-water dispersable and may need special treatment to counteract the pH changes these versions may cause. Dow's K15M HPMC has been mentioned by a number of bubblers on SBF. Dow K100M has also been mentioned and is reportedly a more powerful viscosity builder.
There has been some suggestion that Non-Ultra Dawn is more sensitive to the addition of HPMC than Dawn Pro and that Jumbo Juice levels of HPMC will not work with Non-Ultra Dawn -- this may be true of other viscous detergents and may be the result of conflicts between the polymers used in those detergents as viscosity builders.
K15M (non-cold-water-dispersible version). 1/2 tsp. weighs about 0.72 grams.
Usage notes: The amount used can vary from 0.25 grams to 4 grams per gallon of bubble juice. The amount used depends on what the purpose of the bubble juice is and whether other polymers (such as PEO) are being used. On its own (added to detergent and water), it is quite effective for making bubble juice that works well with small and medium wands of any type. For giant bubbles, it is not as effective as PEO and is often used along with PEO. The J-Lube/Surgilube combination mentioned in recipes is essentially a PEO/HPMC slurry that also has other ingredients since SurgiLube contains many ingredients besides HPMC. Like PEO, HPMC is soluble in water but not easily soluble. Some versions of HPMC have been treated to be more easily soluble in cold water.
It has been found that machine mixing of HPMC while convenient (because it quickly yields a uniform non-lumpy solution) does not result in a better HPMC solution than solutions in which the HPMC is hand-mixed and allowed to become uniform naturally (with the aid of occasional shaking or stirring) over a period of 24 to 48 hours.
This is a useful polymer that can be used as the sole or primary polymer in a mix or as a secondary polymer in a mix. It is often used in conjunction with PEO. It improves bubble-friendliness, elasticity, and self-healing qualities. Some believe that it also enhances the colors.
See the main article.
Guar gum, also called Guaran or Guarkernmehl, is a widely available polymer (usually sold as a powder) that can turn dishwashing liquid and water into an excellent bubble juice for bubbles of all sizes.
Find out more about it and where to get it, in the main guar gum article (which has links to recipes and videos of giant bubbles made with guar gum-based bubble juice).
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CMC is a cellulose gum sometimes used in bubble juice, either on its own or as part of a polymer mix.
Visit the CMC (polymer) page.
Corn Syrup, Sugar
Corn Syrup and/or sugar are primary ingredients in a few recipes that have become popular on the web. So far, all reports indicate that these recipes do not work nearly as well as the recipes that we have included on the wiki. These recipes may work better than just detergent and water, but we have not yet encountered anyone who has continued to use such a recipe once they have tried a recipe that includes a suitable polymer.
Sugar-based thickeners attract insects, especially bees and wasps, and they don't work as well as glycerin or propylene glycol (which themselves are only marginally effective). If you want to use corn syrup or sugar, make sure it is the clear type, not the brown and use it at a rate about double what you would for glycerin.