Phenomena

Detergency

Have you ever wondered just how detergents are able to get grease and oil off a surface? This simple example demonstrates one method. In the top image, a drop of oil sits attached to a solid surface; both are immersed in water. An eyedropper injects a surfactant chemical near the oil drop. This lowers the surface tension of the surrounding water and allows the mixture to better wet the solid. That eats away at the oil drop’s contact with the surface. It takes awhile – the middle animation is drastically sped up – but the oil droplet maintains less and less contact with the surface as the surfactant works. Eventually, in the bottom image, most of the oil drop detaches from the surface and floats away.   (Image credits: C. Kalelkar and A. Sahni, source)

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