Reader Questions

Reader Question: What is Surface Tension?

Last week reader thesnazz asked:

Is there a difference between surface tension and viscosity, or are they two manifestations of the same process and/or principles? If you know a given fluid’s surface tension, can you predict its viscosity, and vice versa?

I’m tackling this one in parts, and you can click here to read about viscosity.

Surface tension’s intermolecular origins are a bit clearer than those of viscosity. Essentially, within the interior of a water drop, you can imagine water molecules all hanging out with other water molecules. They tug on one another, but because they are surrounded on all sides by other water molecules, the net force of all these interactions on any molecule is zero. Not so at the surface of the drop. The surface is also called an interface; it’s a place where the fluid ends and something else–another fluid or perhaps a solid–begins. For a water molecule at that interface, the forces exerted by neighboring molecules are not balanced to zero. Instead, the imbalance causes the water molecules to be tugged inward. We call this effect surface tension.

Because surface tension is an interfacial effect, it is not completely dependent on the fluid alone. For example, a drop of water sitting on a solid surface can take a variety of shapes depending on the properties of the solid (see also hydrophobicity) and the surrounding air as well as those of the water. This is only one of many manifestations of surface tension. Wikipedia has a pretty good overview of some others, if you’d like to learn more. Like viscosity, surface tension is usually measured rather than calculated from first principles.

In the end, both surface tension and viscosity have molecular origins, but they are two very different and independent properties. Viscosity is inherent to a fluid, whereas surface tension depends on the fluid and its neighboring substance. Both quantities are more easily measured than calculated. Thanks again to thesnazz for a great question! As always, you can ask questions or submit post ideas here on Tumblr or via Twitter or email. (Image credit: Wikimedia)

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