Department of Energy Argonne National Laboratory Office of Science NEWTON's Homepage NEWTON's Homepage
NEWTON, Ask A Scientist!
NEWTON Home Page Visit Our Archives Ask A Question How To Ask A Question Question of the Week NEWTON Teachers Our Expert Scientists Volunteer at NEWTON! Referencing NEWTON Frequently Asked Questions About Ask A Scientist About NEWTON Education At Argonne Acoustic Bubble Collapse and Light

Name: Matt
Status: student
Grade: 9-12
Country: Australia
Date: Fall 2012

If you collapse a bubble underwater with a sound-wave how and why does it produce light?

There is pretty good evidence that the light is simple thermal luminescence. The vapor in the bubbles gets so hot upon the collapse that it emits light.

Richard E. Barrans Jr., Ph.D., M.Ed. Department of Physics and Astronomy

The phenomenon you refer to is called “cavitation”. It has many various applications and descriptions, depending upon how the system is set up. In simplest terms a bubble of a gas is generated by a rapid change in the pressure of the liquid. When the pressure is changed from greater than to less than the vapor pressure, a bubble is formed. However, when the pressure is rapidly reduced, the bubble collapses. This results in an explosive decompression so rapidly that the local pressure and temperature increases so rapidly, a very unequal condition occurs. The pressure and temperature increase to such an extent that the bubble the vapor within the bubble gets so hot that it emits light. Other things can also happen also. For example, if this decompression occurs on the blades of a propeller, the blade can be damaged.

Cavitation is a large topic both in basic science and engineering as well. For a more detailed treatment, see the Wikipedia title “cavitation”. It is a very interesting and large topic.

Vince Calder

Matt, That is one good question! I believe you are describing sonoluminescence. Sonoluminescence can occur when a sound wave of sufficient intensity induces a gaseous cavitation(a bubble) within a liquid to collapse quickly. The sound wave propagating through water can be observed to spontaneously focus its energy by over a factor of one trillion, generating 20,000 K degrees and collapse. Upon collapse, a very short flash of ultraviolet light is emitted. The motion of the bubble under sonic conditions is approximated by the Rayleigh-Plesset equation up until the collapse of the bubble: Image: Where R, radius of the bubble and time derivative dotR. ì is the viscosity, p the pressure, and ã the surface tension. The focusing of energy during the formation of the shock wave upon collapse has something to do with the emission of light. But the details are unclear. The mechanism for the emission of light is highly debated and is currently under investigation. Wikipedia:sonoluminescence Hoping that helps! Peter E. Hughes, Ph.D. Milford, NH

Click here to return to the Physics Archives

NEWTON is an electronic community for Science, Math, and Computer Science K-12 Educators, sponsored and operated by Argonne National Laboratory's Educational Programs, Andrew Skipor, Ph.D., Head of Educational Programs.

For assistance with NEWTON contact a System Operator (, or at Argonne's Educational Programs

Educational Programs
Building 223
9700 S. Cass Ave.
Argonne, Illinois
60439-4845, USA
Update: November 2011
Weclome To Newton

Argonne National Laboratory