The bronchioles divide many more times in the lungs to create an impressive tree with smaller and smaller branches, some no larger than 0.5 mm (0.02 in) in diameter. These branches dead-end into tiny air sacs called alveoli. The alveoli deliver oxygen to the circulatory system and remove carbon dioxide. Interspersed among the alveoli are numerous macrophages, large white blood cells that patrol the alveoli and remove foreign substances that have not been filtered out earlier. The macrophages are the last line of defense of the respiratory system; their presence helps ensure that the alveoli are protected from infection so that they can carry out their vital role.
A scanning electron micrograph reveals the tiny sacs known as alveoli within a section of human lung tissue. Human beings have a thin layer of about 700 million alveoli within their lungs. This layer is crucial in the process called respiration, exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide with the surrounding blood capillaries.
The alveoli number about 150 million per lung and comprise most of the lung tissue. Alveoli resemble tiny, collapsed balloons with thin elastic walls that expand as air flows into them and collapse when the air is exhaled. Alveoli are arranged in grapelike clusters, and each cluster is surrounded by a dense hairnet of tiny, thin-walled capillaries. The alveoli and capillaries are arranged in such a way that air in the wall of the alveoli is only about 0.1 to 0.2 microns from the blood in the capillary. Since the concentration of oxygen is much higher in the alveoli than in the capillaries, the oxygen diffuses from the alveoli to the capillaries. The oxygen flows through the capillaries to larger vessels, which carry the oxygenated blood to the heart, where it is pumped to the rest of the body.
Carbon dioxide that has been dumped into the bloodstream as a waste product from cells throughout the body flows through the bloodstream to the heart, and then to the alveolar capillaries. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the capillaries is much higher than in the alveoli, causing carbon dioxide to diffuse into the alveoli. Exhalation forces the carbon dioxide back through the respiratory passages and then to the outside of the body.