What Really Happens When You Pop Champagne, According to Science

Researchers now have a clearer picture of the supersonic shock waves that form when carbon dioxide escapes from a bottle of bubbly

Champagne glasses cheersing
There's more than meets the eye going on when someone pops a bottle of bubbly. Pixabay

Popping a bottle of bubbly is usually a sure-fire way to get everyone in a festive mood. It’s also an insightful, exciting science experiment.

Scientists now have a more detailed understanding of exactly what goes on, from a fluid dynamics perspective, during the process of opening a bottle of champagne.

Previous research revealed that uncorking a bottle of sparkling wine—called champagne, cava, prosecco or many other names, depending on where and how it’s made and from what grapes—generates supersonic shock waves that are similar to those created by rockets and jets. Despite other recent research using high-speed cameras to visualize the process of popping the cork, how carbon dioxide gas expands and flows out of the bottle propelling the cork outward, remained a relatively undefined process. The latest findings, published last month in the journal Physics of Fluids, help paint a more complete picture of how those shock waves form, change and, eventually, dissipate when someone pops the cork out of the bottle.

Champagne cork
Popping the cork of a champagne bottle is like a science experiment.  Pixabay

To unravel the scientific mysteries of uncorking, researchers used computer simulations to measure the speed, patterns and shapes of the shock waves, which are created when carbon dioxide trapped inside the bottle escapes.

Immediately after the cork pops out, pressurized carbon dioxide gas within the bottle expands laterally, forming a crown-shaped supersonic shock wave. As the cork moves away from the bottleneck, the carbon dioxide morphs into a cylindrical supersonic jet, collides with the cork and then forms a curved, detached shock wave, also known as a bow shock.

Eventually, the pressure inside the bottle drops and the flow of carbon dioxide slows down. At last, the champagne is ready for pouring and drinking. In other words, a complex and captivating physical reaction occurs every time a bartender or dinner party host starts the sparkling wine flowing.

“Our paper unravels the unexpected and beautiful flow patterns that are hidden right under our nose each time a bottle of bubbly is uncorked,” Gérard Liger-Belair, a chemical physicist at University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne and one of the study’s authors, says in a statement. “Who could have imagined the complex and aesthetic phenomena hidden behind such a common situation experienced by any one of us?”

Popping the cork
Sciences now have a more complete understanding of how shock waves form, change and, eventually, dissipate when someone pops the cork out of the bottle. 

But these experiments are more than just a fun party trick—the findings could be useful for a range of important applications, since similar gas flow phenomena occurs elsewhere, in places as disparate as wind turbines, volcanic eruptions and rocket launchers, according to the researchers. They may also be relevant to manufacturing electronics and designing underwater vehicles, like submarines.

Champagne is so much more than just a refreshing adult beverage. As Robert Georges, a physicist at the University of Rennes 1 and one of the study’s authors, says in a statement, each bottle is also a “mini-laboratory.”

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