Capillary action – or capillarity – is the ability of liquids to flow through narrow constrictions. It results from intermolecular forces between fluids and solids. It’s a combination of surface tension – which creates cohesion within the liquid – and adhesion, which allows the liquid and solid to hold to one another. Together, these forces propel the liquid to flow through narrow gaps.
In the video below, a saturated mixture of sand and water is poured into a mold on a bed of dry sand. When left to settle, much of the water flows from the mold into the dry sand bed through capillary action. When the mold is removed (top), the sand holds its shape, something it can’t do without a porous bed to soak in the excess liquid. (Image and video credit: amàco et al.)