How Silly String Saves Lives

Ah, foam. Its frothy goodness is responsible for everything
from shaving cream to lattes. But the word “foam” can describe /any/
liquid or solid with tiny pockets of gas inside. Think back to when you were a kid – maybe
you blew bubbles in your milk. Those air-filled suds are a kind of foam,
but so is a squishy memory foam mattress. Thanks to the gases inside, foams can be really
lightweight, useful materials for lots of different purposes. They could even save your life someday. Take Silly String. It’s awesome for pranks or party shenanigans,
but there’s a lot of interesting chemistry going on inside these cans. The string part of this foamy toy is mostly
made of an acrylic resin, a bunch of plastic molecules linked up in long chains. The original formula for Silly String had
an acrylic resin called polyisobutyl methacrylate, which is also found in Plexiglass. This resin is mixed with a few other chemicals
to give the strand some color, stickiness, and more strength. Now, the propellant is what forces all this
stuff out when you squeeze the ­nozzle of the can. This lets the pressure drop inside the can,
so the compressed liquid propellant turns back into a gas, expanding to force the string
goop out. In the 1970s, Silly String used the ozone-depleting
Freon-12 as a propellant, before chlorofluorocarbon gases were banned from production. Modern Silly String uses propellants called
hydrofluorocarbons instead, which are cousins that don’t damage the ozone layer, but are
still potent greenhouse gases. Squeezing out this mixture of ingredients
creates thin foamy strands, with lots of help from surfactants. Surfactants are molecules that can be found
in detergents around your home. They have water-loving hydrophilic end, which
interact with water molecules, and awater-repelling hydrophobic end, which interact with other
molecules like the ones in air or oil. So, when the Silly String liquid gets exposed
to air, surfactants like sorbitan trioleate, basically stabilize the bubbles of air inside
to make a fluffy, sticky foam. It’s a fun and messy toy for kids, but this
lightweight foam also has been used for serious safety by the U.S. military – to detect
trip wires near explosives. If they spray Silly String into an empty room,
and it falls to the ground, the room is safe. But if there’s a trip wire or another hazard,
the foam will hang off of it without setting off the booby trap. Another cool sometimes-canned foam is spray
foam insulation, also called spray polyurethane foam, or SPF for short. It’s that whitish-yellowish stuff that you
might see in houses under construction, or even just in your garage. And it’s designed to expand and harden to
control heat and airflow. To make this foam, two /separate/ mixtures
are combined and sprayed at the exact same time. One container, usually called side A, contains
some of the chemical building blocks of polyurethane, the polymer SPF is named after. [EYE-so-SIGH-un-ates]
They’re called isocyanates, which are a kind of organic chemical that all share a
functional group of reactive atoms. And they’re used in lots of coatings, glues,
and foams. [POLY-alls]
Side B stores the other building blocks called polyols, which have a bunch of hydroxyl functional
groups. Side B has some other stuff in it too, like
fireproofing chemicals, catalysts to speed up the reaction, surfactants, and a blowing
agent, which helps expand the foam and affects its density and stiffness. When sprayed, the A and B sides mix together
to create the super-tough polyurethane polymers and some gases, to make a foam that hardens
where it lands. The mixture of gases in the foam bubbles makes
it resist heat transfer really well. So when you spray this foam onto walls and
roofs, it acts as an insulator and reduces unwanted airflow. It’s good for weatherproofing /and/ it brings
down the energy bill, which is never a bad thing! Finally, there’s the futuristic-sounding
metal foam, which is just a solid metal — usually something like aluminum — with lots of gas-filled
pores. There are a couple ways to make it. You can inject some air, nitrogen, or argon
gas straight into molten metal, creating gas bubbles as the metal expands, cools, and hardens. Or you can mix some blowing agents, like titanium
hydride or calcium carbonate, into molten metal. These chemicals decompose when they’re heated,
which also makes bubbles. Metal foam is really useful because it acts
just like its parent metal – with things like corrosion resistance, strength, electrical
conductivity, and thermal conductivity – but at a fraction of the weight. So it can be used for lots of things. For example, car parts made of metal foam
cut down on noise, reduce weight, and can increase energy absorption during crashes
so that we don’t get smushed. It’s been used to create lighter animal
prosthetics. And, researchers are developing metal foam
that mimics bone for biomedical implants that hopefully won’t be rejected by the human
body. There’s even research into composite metal
foam, which combines several metals for even more strength, and could be developed into
bulletproof armor. So foam’s not only for parties. It can save lives! Thanks for watching this episode of SciShow,
which was brought to you by our patrons on Patreon. If you want to help support this show, just
go to And don’t forget to go to
and subscribe!

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *