Surface Tension of Water

Barbara Pawela Retired


1. To use the phenomenological approach to demonstrate the basic concepts
associated with surface tension.
2. To demonstrate the meaning of adhesion.
3. To demonstrate the meaning of cohesion.
4. To determine the relationship between the molecular attraction, adhesion,
cohesion, and surface tension.
5. To show that surface tension plays an important role in detergents and
other cleaning agents.

Materials Needed:

water aluminum foil index cards
alcohol marbles or paper clips scissors
dish detergent wire mesh talcum powder
or chips of soap waxpaper different light-weight
bubble solution small jars materials
bubble blowers plastic glasses


Activity I:

1. Divide the class into groups of 4 or 5 students. Have stations set up for
the different activities.
2. At each station, have 2 plastic glasses filled to the brim with water.
Have a pre-measured container of water from which a student from each
group extracts water with an eye dropper, and transfers it drop by drop to
one of the above-mentioned plastic glasses. Have the students predict
what might happen. As the activity to overfill the glass continues, have
the students observe that very many drops of water can be added without
the water spilling out. If done carefully, the water forms an oval shape
above the rim of the glass. Continue putting in the drops of water until
the water starts spilling out of the glass. Check the amount of water
that was used by calculating the difference in the amount of water left in
the pre-measured container.
3. Next, have another student in each group use marbles or paper clips to
overfill the other plastic glass in the same manner described above.
Discuss with the students what they observed and elicit responses about
what the possible causes were of what they observed.
4. Review with the students the concept of the molecule as a single unit of a
completed whole. Use an example such as a brick being a single unit in
building the exterior of a brick house.
5. Introduce the term "surface tension" of water. Explain to the students
that surface tension of water is caused by the attraction of the water
molecules for each other. Use a magnet to attract some steel paper clips
and similar objects to get the idea of attraction across to the students.
Discuss and conclude that this attraction that the molecules have for each
other is particularly strong on the surface of the water, because the
molecules have nothing above them to be attracted to, so they pull harder
to the sides and down. This pulling creates a "skin" or film on the
surface. The film on the surface is pulled tightly over the liquid.
Surface tension refers to the fact that the surface of the liquid water is
pulled tightly together by attractions from inside.

Activity II:

1. At each station have a sheet of wax paper, and an eye dropper. Have one
student in each group put three drops of water near, but not touching,
each other. Have another student use a toothpick to gently push the water
drops toward each other. Discuss what was observed. The drops were
attracted to each other and formed a single drop. After a few minutes,
the drop flattened because of the effect of gravity.
2. Have another group member place another drop of water on the wax paper.
Observe what happens in the next few minutes to the drop. Discuss and
conclude that the water drops seem to want to come and stick together.
There seems to be a force that keeps the water together. Explain that
this force is called cohesion.

Activity III:

1. For each group have 2 basin-like dishes filled with water. Sprinkle
talcum powder lightly on the surface of the water. Have a student
squirt one drop of alcohol onto the talcum powder in one of the dishes.
The talcum powder will move away from where the alcohol drop fell. Have
another student use a small piece of wet soap and touch it to the water
near the edge of the other dish. The talcum powder will move to opposite
side of the plate. Discuss and conclude that the alcohol and the soap
weakened the surface tension of the water at one point and the increased
surface tension on the other part of the water contracts the surface and
pulls the talcum powder with it.
2. Give each group an index card and have them draw an isosceles triangle and
cut it out. This will be their boat. Have a dishpan or similar
container filled with water. Have the students place the boat on the
water and let it float. Have the students put a small drop of dish-
washing liquid on their finger. Instruct the students to dip their finger
in the water behind their boat. The boat moves forward. Discuss and
conclude that the soap weakened the surface tension behind the boat.
Because the surface tension was stronger in front of the boat, the boat
was moved forward. The weakening of surface tension occurs because the
soap molecules move between the water molecules and weaken their
attraction for one another. As a result cohesion of the water becomes
less and surface tension decreases.
3. Put some water in a jar. Pour a small amount of cooking oil on the water.
Mix the oil and water. Have the students observe what happens. The oil
forms drops that gather together. Add a few drops of the dish-washing
detergent to the jar and mix. The oil seems to mix with the water.
Discuss and have students give hypotheses for what they observed. Explain
to the students that surface tension plays a very important part in the
action of soaps and detergents. When oil is poured on water it has a
strong surface tension. The water also has a strong surface tension. The
adhesion between the oil and water is weak. The water pulls toward itself
and the oil pulls toward itself. They do not mix. When the detergent is
added to the oil and water, one end of each molecule of detergent is
attracted to water molecules. The other end is attracted to oil
molecules. The detergent molecule forms a kind of bridge of attraction
between the water and oil molecules.


Don Herbert and Hy Ruchlis Mr. Wizard's 400 Experiments in Science,
Copyright, 1968, Book Lab Publisher

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