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Sound energy spreads out as it travels away from a source, but a balloon filled with carbon dioxide gas can focus sound, acting like a lens to create a loud spot.
Have one person stand in place and hold the balloon up to his or her ear. Have a second person stand on the other side of the balloon, about 3 feet (1 meter) away from the center of the balloon, and make noise: encourage him or her to talk, sing, click the clicker, or use some other noisemaker to produce sounds. The first person should then move the balloon around to find the position in which the sound is loudest.
The point where the sound is the loudest should be on a straight line from the sound source through the center of the balloon to about 18 in (46 cm) away from the center. The exact distance will depend on the size of your balloon and the position of the sound source. When you find the loudest location, remove the balloon and listen to the noise again. Notice that the sound is now quieter.
What happens if you change where you’re standing? Have the noisy person move to another position and have the first person find the loudest point again. Notice that the loud point moves in a direction opposite to the motion of the sound source. When the sound moves up, the loud point moves down. When the sound moves closer, the loud point moves farther away. (Note that if you move the sound source too close, there will be no loud point.)
Try moving farther and farther away. Find the loudest point for a distant sound (one that’s more than 10 feet [3 meters] away). The distance from the center of the balloon to this point is the focal length of the balloon.
Carbon dioxide (CO2) molecules are more massive than the nitrogen, oxygen, and argon molecules that make up air (N2, O2, Ar), so the speed of sound in the carbon dioxide gas is slower than the speed of sound in air.
As sound waves enter the carbon dioxide-filled balloon, they slow and bend, just as light waves slow down and bend when they pass from air into a glass lens. The sound waves that pass through different parts of the balloon bend by different amounts and then come together at one point on the other side of the balloon, creating a loud spot. The balloon focuses sound waves to create a loud spot much the way a magnifying glass focuses the sun’s rays to create a hot spot.
A balloon full of helium does not focus sound. Helium is lighter than air, so the speed of sound in helium is faster than the speed of sound in air. A helium balloon causes sound waves to diverge, making sound spread out more quickly than it would in air.
When you’re done using the balloon as a lens for sound, try inflating another balloon to the same size just with air and observe what happens when you drop both at once. You'll notice the carbon dioxide-filled balloon falls faster. That's because carbon dioxide is denser than air.
Soap bubbles float on a cushion of carbon dioxide gas.
A round bowl of water can act as both a magnifier and a lens.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
Attribution: Exploratorium Teacher Institute