Foam is an object formed by trapping pockets of gas in a liquid or solid. A bath sponge and the head on a glass of beer are examples of foams. In most foams, the volume of gas is large, with thin films of liquid or solid separating the regions of gas. Soap foams are also known as suds.
Solid foams can be closed-cell or open-cell. In closed-cell foam, the gas forms discrete pockets, each completely surrounded by the solid material. In open-cell foam, gas pockets connect to each other. A bath sponge is an example of an open-cell foam: water easily flows through the entire structure, displacing the air. A camping mat is an example of a closed-cell foam: gas pockets are sealed from each other so the mat cannot soak up water.
Foams are examples of dispersed media. In general, gas is present, so it divides into gas bubbles of different sizes (i.e., the material is polydisperse)—separated by liquid regions that may form films, thinner and thinner when the liquid phase drains out of the system films. When the principal scale is small, i.e., for a very fine foam, this dispersed medium can be considered a type of colloid.
Foam can also refer to something that is analogous to foam, such as quantum foam, polyurethane foam (foam rubber), XPS foam, polystyrene, phenolic, or many other manufactured foams.
A foam is, in many cases, a multi-scale system.
One scale is the bubble: material foams are typically disordered and have a variety of bubble sizes. At larger sizes, the study of idealized foams is closely linked to the mathematical problems of minimal surfaces and three-dimensional tessellations, also called honeycombs. The Weaire–Phelan structure is considered the best possible (optimal) unit cell of a perfectly ordered foam, while Plateau's laws describe how soap-films form structures in foams.
At lower scale than the bubble is the thickness of the film for metastable foams, which can be considered a network of interconnected films called lamellae. Ideally, the lamellae connect in triads and radiate 120° outward from the connection points, known as Plateau borders.
An even lower scale is the liquid–air interface at the surface of the film. Most of the time this interface is stabilized by a layer of amphiphilic structure, often made of surfactants, particles (Pickering emulsion), or more complex associations.
Further information: Polymeric foam
Solid foams are a class of lightweight cellular engineering materials. These foams are typically classified into two types based on their pore structure: open-cell-structured foams (also known as reticulated foams) and closed-cell foams. At high enough cell resolutions, any type can be treated as continuous or "continuum" materials and are referred to as cellular solids with predictable mechanical properties.
Open-cell-structured foams contain pores that are connected to each other and form an interconnected network that is relatively soft. Open-cell foams fill with whatever gas surrounds them. If filled with air, a relatively good insulator results, but, if the open cells fill with water, insulation properties would be reduced. Recent studies have put the focus on studying the properties of open-cell foams as an insulator material. Wheat gluten/TEOS bio-foams have been produced, showing similar insulator properties as for those foams obtained from oil-based resources. Foam rubber is a type of open-cell foam.
Closed-cell foams do not have interconnected pores. The closed-cell foams normally have higher compressive strength due to their structures. However, closed-cell foams are also, in general more dense, require more material, and as a consequence are more expensive to produce. The closed cells can be filled with a specialized gas to provide improved insulation. The closed-cell structure foams have higher dimensional stability, low moisture absorption coefficients, and higher strength compared to open-cell-structured foams. All types of foam are widely used as core material in sandwich-structured composite materials.
The earliest known engineering use of cellular solids is with wood, which in its dry form is a closed-cell foam composed of lignin, cellulose, and air. From the early 20th century, various types of specially manufactured solid foams came into use. The low density of these foams makes them excellent as thermal insulators and flotation devices and their lightness and compressibility make them ideal as packing materials and stuffings.
An example of the use of azodicarbonamide as a blowing agent is found in the manufacture of vinyl (PVC) and EVA-PE foams, where it plays a role in the formation of air bubbles by breaking down into gas at high temperature.
The random or "stochastic" geometry of these foams makes them good for energy absorption, as well. In the late 20th century to early 21st century, new manufacturing techniques have allowed for geometry that results in excellent strength and stiffness per weight. These new materials are typically referred to as engineered cellular solids.