Water droplets immersed in a mixture of oil and surfactants will move about, propelled by the Marangoni effect. Surfactant molecules congregate along the interface between the water and oil, but they do not do so uniformly. This uneven grouping causes variations in the surface tension, which in turn creates flows inside the droplet from areas of low surface tension to ones with higher surface tension. Those internal flows then dictate how the droplet as a whole moves.
Researchers found that droplet trajectories in these systems depend on the droplet’s size. Small droplets move in relatively straight lines, whereas larger droplets take highly curved paths. The difference comes from the way surfactants get distributed around the drop’s interface. Larger drops are more sensitive to shifts in surfactant location, making them more prone to take changeable, curving paths. (Image credits: top – P. Godfrey, others – S. Suda et al.; research credit: S. Suda et al.; via APS Physics)