How do Sonicators Work? An Introduction to the Branson Sonifier®

by Andy on November 21, 2011

Branson Sonifier The Branson Sonifier®, an ultrasonic cell disruptor, is next in a long line of laboratory equipment that All-Spec Industries will provide for consumers. While their name seems to come out of a science fiction novel, these ultrasonic cell disruptors are versatile tools used in current biological and chemical processing. Sonifier® is the specific name for Branson’s product, but in general this type of machine is commonly called a sonicator.

At the heart of a sonicator is a piezoelectric crystal such as quartz. These crystals have the odd property of generating an electrical current when compressed. This property is actually what is used in devices that contain a piezo lighter. The electrical charge generated by compressing (or often striking) the crystal is used to spark the gas, which ignites a flame in devices like butane soldering irons.

However, a secondary property of the piezoelectric crystal is used in sonicators. Not only do they generate electrical current when compressed, but they will also expand when a current is passed through them. To take advantage of this a sonicator will pass an alternating electric current through the crystal to make it expand and contract rapidly. Often times the current will be oscillating at 20-50 kHz, which is 20,000-50,000 changes in current per second! Each time the current changes the crystal will expand or contract, causing it to vibrate rapidly and produce an ultrasonic wave. This is where sonicators get their names, and it leads to sonicators being extremely loud when used. Many sonicators have special sound-proof housing available to help counteract this noise. Also sonicators must be tuned to the frequency of oscillation so that it vibrates the same way as the crystal. This allows the machine to resist the destructive vibration of the crystal and focus it onto the sample that needs to be disrupted.

The vibration of the crystal is not the only thing that allows a sonicator to disrupt cells. When immersed in liquid the tip of the sonicator will go through a process called cavitation. While the tip is contracting the liquid can not keep up, and little vacuum cavities are created. Before the liquid can fill in these cavities the crystal will expand again, causing the vacuum to implode and send out a shockwave. This will release a huge amount of energy, quickly destroying the membranes of cells in the solution. Another byproduct of this energy release is heat, which can easily cook any material that is too big to be disrupted. Any large tissue must be broken down and partially homogenized before disruption, and operators must be careful to not touch an active probe. Also care must be taken to only use sonicators in short bursts as it will cause any water it is in contact with to boil within just a few seconds. This is especially important when processing heat sensitive chemicals.

Branson Sonifier Horn Sonicators have a large number of uses, making it a very versatile piece of lab equipment. Due to its ability to disrupt cell membranes it is a perfect machine to emulsify materials. It can also homogenize samples, disrupt cellular structures, disperse or mix compounds, and accelerate reactions. Look for Branson Sonifiers® at www.all-spec.com today!

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