Thursday 10 September 2020

Ballonts VIII: Blue Sky Thinking (Part 1)

By Abbydon

Over the past few years, I have discovered an interest in astrobiology as it combines my childhood fascination with both astrophysics and biology. Linked to this I also enjoy speculative biology though sadly my artistic talents are embarrassingly poor (For reference, I did not produce any of the pictures shown below). For this reason, I have followed the various articles on lighter-than-air organisms (also known as ballonts) with interest.

Like many other people, I have found it disheartening that designing a plausible small ballont has proven challenging. Large ballonts appear to be viable as they can generate sufficient lift to allow both the balloon and a body to float but smaller ballonts cannot get off the ground.

This is unfortunate as it means infant “large” ballonts would be unable to float until they had grown sufficiently large. Small ballonts are also interesting as they can form only part of an organism’s lifecycle which may allow the body to have reduced functionality. This could be a mechanism for spore dispersal from an otherwise sessile organism as a more sophisticated version of a dandelion clock. Alternatively, it could be for reproduction only like an adult mayfly which can have a life measured in minutes.

As previously discussed on this blog, the problem for small ballonts is the membrane needed to contain the lighter than air lifting gas. A small volume of lifting gas without a membrane would of course float but it wouldn’t take anything with it. Therefore, clearly a membrane of some form is needed to separate the lifting gas from the rest of the atmosphere. Unfortunately, the mass of the membrane is proportional to the surface area of the ballont whereas lift is proportional to the volume. Since all membranes have mass this means that for small ballonts the mass of membrane is typically greater than the lift produced by the lifting gas.

Solving this problem requires reconsidering what could be used as a membrane in an attempt to get closer to the “magic massless membrane” than Mylar. Mylar is used for long lived helium party balloons and has a thickness of 0.1 mm with a density 1.2 times water, which is perfectly adequate for large ballonts but insufficient for small ones.

Two possible ideas sprang to mind which might achieve this, the first of which will be discussed in this article, with the second reserved for a following article. The first possibility to be considered is whether soap bubbles could be used. There are many videos online showing lighter-than-air hydrogen filled bubbles being produced, though they do normally come to fiery end which is not what we want to happen to our poor ballonts.

Soap bubbles may not seem the ideal form for a ballont but a bubble film is typically around a thousandth of a millimetre thick and has a density of approximately water. This is much closer to a massless membrane than Mylar so perhaps it will enable smaller ballonts. A ballont would not literally use soap to produce bubbles but would instead use some alternative organic chemical.

In previous articles a hypothetical Mylar based ballont was shown to float only once its radius was above 30 cm but the chart below shows that a hydrogen filled soap bubble could provide lift at much smaller sizes. For reference,


Click to enlarge; copyright Abbydon
However, while the Guinness world record for bubble size is just under 100 cubic metres we don’t expect plausible ballonts to use single bubbles that large. The next chart shows smaller hydrogen filled bubbles can still lift a few milligrams if they have a radius larger than 3 mm.

Click to enlarge; copyright Abbydon
Scientists are known to do strange things in the name of Science but perhaps one of the weirdest papers I have read involves weighing 90 leaf cutter ants to determine their load carrying performance. Apparently they ranged from 1.2 to 36.8 mg with an average of 9.3 mg. The extreme low end of this is light enough that it could be lifted by a single bubble with about a 7 mm radius. Perhaps an alien leafcutter ant could generate a bubble to get to the top of a tree, harvest a leaf and use the ballast to descend once again. Such an “antballont” might look like a honeypot ant with a bubble for an abdomen as shown in the sketch below.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk. The squares are 1 mm in size. The panel on the left shows a circle with a 7 mm radius and a small leafcutter ant. the panel on the right shows an evolved ant holding a bubble between its hind legs.  

A single bubble could be viable for tiny ballonts such as the ant but it would be too fragile for large ones. A better solution for larger ballonts would be to produce a foam of many small bubbles. Each of these bubbles would produce lift on its own and a foam mass would produce more. This approach has been used to generate floating helium filled foam letters for advertising purposes!

The chart below shows that such a foam mass produces less lift than a single bubble of the same volume but a 5 cm radius spherical foam mass of individual 0.5 cm radius bubbles could still carry just over a quarter of a gram. This again sounds light but it could certainly carry a bundle of seeds or an insect several times larger than an ant. It is probably even enough to carry a vertebrate such as the 7.7 mm long frog, Paedophryne amanuensis with its legs spread out to stay in contact with the bubbles.

Click to enlarge; copyright Abbydon

This all suggests that the soap bubble idea is valid for producing a somewhat plausible small ballont without too much hand waving. This is possible because of the thin water-based membrane but there is one important disadvantage, a short lifespan. The bubble will pop eventually unlike a solid membrane. This can be managed if the ballont does not need to remain aloft indefinitely, perhaps because it is only part of a lifecycle (e.g. a seed or a mayfly) or perhaps because it only creates the foam to float at night. Alternatively, the organism could regenerate the bubbles constantly while in flight to maintain and even adjust lift.

How long can a bubble last though? About a hundred years ago, in a sealed container it is claimed that Scottish scientist James Dewar managed to get a 19 cm diameter bubble to last for over three years and a 32 cm diameter bubble to last for 108 days. This is not likely under realistic conditions but it shows what is possible.

Bubbles burst when the membrane becomes too thin as the water in the membrane flows to the bottom of the bubble or it simply evaporates. While low temperature and high humidity conditions may enable bubbles based ballonts to last longer, a more feasible approach is to add chemicals to the bubble mixture to make the membrane more resilient. For fun at home the Soap Bubble Wiki has several recipes for this.

It remains an open question as to how long a bubble foam could last but several minutes is possible with these home-made bubble mixes. Some species of frogs and fish make bubble nests that last for days, however, these require maintenance and might be too heavy to float. It is therefore conceivable that a biologically possible option in between these two extremes could produce a bubble foam that would be light enough to float but had a longer duration than normal. This would be ideal for seed, spore or larva distribution where a 5 cm radius foam containing a few hundred bubbles could be generated by the parent before being sent on its way to pastures new. This is shown below with the small Furahan “brochos” larvae suspended in a floating foam to enable longer range travel than would otherwise be possible.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk. This is a sketch for a painting that has already been finished and will appear in The Book.

Click to enlarge; copyright Gert van Dijk. The Book will contain many secondary illustrations; this one will accompany the one above.
This article will be concluded with a discussion of the alternative option to soap bubbles for small ballonts. Please let us know what you think of soap bubble ballonts by commenting below.

Since people seem interested in my thoughts on these topics I thought I should perhaps produce my own blog. Since I am a physicist and no artist this will be quite different to the Planet Furaha blog. I have therefore started Exocosm which will discuss the possibilities of planets around other stars (i.e. exoplanets). Time will time whether I can manage to continually produce worthwhile articles though…


This was the first ever guest post on this blog, and I hope you liked it. Abbydon and I decided to split it into two parts; the second one has already been written, but I need to produce an additional illustration before it can be posted. 

If anyone else is interested in writing a guest post, write to me about the idea and do not send a complete text yet!

Sigmund Nastrazzurro 
(nastrazzurro  AT gmail DOT com)