Susanna Laurén Jun 11, ’24 > 6 min

How emulsions form and break?

Emulsions and foams are dispersed systems commonly encountered in various industries and everyday life. Emulsions consist of two immiscible liquids, such as oil and water, while foams are made up of gas bubbles dispersed in a liquid. Both can be found in numerous applications, from food products to industrial processes.

Understanding and controlling the stability of emulsions and foams are vital for optimizing product quality and process efficiency across various sectors. Whether enhancing the texture of a food product or ensuring the smooth operation of an industrial process, managing these dispersed systems is key to achieving desired outcomes.

Emulsions and foams are found in several everyday products

Emulsions appear in many forms, from food items like mayonnaise and salad dressings to personal care products such as day creams and lotions. In the industrial sector, emulsions are crucial in the production of paints and coatings, ensuring smooth application and consistent performance. However, emulsions can also form as unwanted byproducts in processes like crude oil extraction, where their presence can complicate operations.

The stability of emulsions is essential when they are intentionally created, as it directly affects the quality and functionality of the final product. Conversely, in situations where emulsions are undesirable, destabilizing agents are necessary to break them down and restore efficiency to the process.

Foams, comprising gas bubbles dispersed in a liquid or solid matrix, are equally widespread. In the food industry, foams contribute to the texture and structure of products like whipped cream, meringues, and certain breads. In cosmetics, foams are used in products like shaving cream and mousses. Industrial applications include firefighting foams.

Like emulsions, the stability of foams can be either beneficial or problematic. Stable foams are critical for the desired performance of products like shaving creams or culinary foams. On the other hand, unwanted foams can interfere with manufacturing processes, requiring the use of antifoaming agents to break them down.

How are emulsions formed?

Emulsions are formed by agitating two immiscible liquids, such as oil and water, in the presence of an emulsifier. Emulsifiers can be proteins, phospholipids, or even nanoparticles. There are two primary types of emulsions: oil-in-water (O/W), where oil is the dispersed phase and water is the continuous phase, and water-in-oil (W/O), where the roles are reversed. The type of emulsifier used determines the type of emulsion formed.

The hydrophilic-lipophilic balance (HLB) of a surfactant measures how hydrophilic (water-attracting) or lipophilic (oil-attracting) it is. Hydrophilic surfactants are water-soluble and act as emulsifying agents for O/W emulsions. In contrast, lipophilic (or hydrophobic) surfactants are oil-soluble and act as emulsifying agents for W/O emulsions. This balance is crucial in designing and stabilizing emulsions for various applications.

How do emulsions break?

Emulsions can be destabilized by four primary mechanisms: creaming/sedimentation, flocculation, coalescence, and Ostwald ripening.

1.    Creaming/Sedimentation:
Mechanism: This occurs due to the density difference between the dispersed and continuous phases.
Impact of creaming: In oil-in-water (O/W) emulsions, the lighter oil droplets rise to the surface.
Impact of sedimentation: In water-in-oil (W/O) emulsions, the denser water droplets settle at the bottom.

2.    Flocculation:
Mechanism: Emulsion droplets aggregate, forming larger clusters without merging.
Impact: While the droplets remain distinct, their aggregation can lead to instability and eventual separation if further destabilization occurs.
Emulsion stability

3.    Coalescence:
Mechanism: Smaller droplets merge to form larger droplets. This happens when droplets collide, and the interfacial film between them ruptures, leading to phase separation over time.
Impact: Continuous merging of droplets results in larger droplets and eventual separation of the emulsion into distinct phases.

4.    Ostwald Ripening:
Mechanism: Smaller droplets dissolve in the continuous phase and then redeposit onto larger droplets. This process occurs because it leads to a more thermodynamically stable state, where the system minimizes its total interfacial energy.
Impact: Over time, this leads to an increase in the average droplet size and can contribute to the breakdown of the emulsion.

Understanding these mechanisms is crucial for controlling emulsion stability, whether the goal is to maintain the emulsion in products like food and cosmetics or to break down unwanted emulsions in industrial processes. Interfacial properties between the liquid-liquid or air-liquid interfaces play a role in the stabilization process. Interfacial rheology studies have been utilized to better understand the phenomena at the interfaces. If you are interested in learning more about interfacial rheology, please watch the webinar recording through the link below. 

stability of emulsion and foam

Learn how interfacial rheology can be utilized to study the emulsion and foam stability

Watch it now

This blog was originally published on the 24th of November, 2020. It has since been updated for comprehensiveness. 

Related products

   Theta Pulsating Drop Optical tensiometer especially suitable for interfacial rheology with the  pulsating drop method.
   ISR Flip Next-generation interfacial shear rheometer. Enables highly sensitive  measurements of interfacial viscoelasticity at air-liquid/liquid-liquid  interfaces.

Explore the blog

You have only scratched the surface.



View all