Have you ever noticed on a rainy day how water forms droplets on a window? Why does it do that instead of spreading out evenly over the whole surface? You might not guess it but this property of water is also related to washing dishes and doing the laundry. How? It all has to do with something called surface tension. Try this activity to learn more!
You have probably noticed that if you look at a surface outside on a rainy day or spill some water inside, the liquid tends to form droplets that stick up from a surface instead of spreading out into an even sheet. This occurs because water is made up of many tiny molecules that are all attracted to one another. Molecules in the middle of a drop of water are pulled evenly in all directions by all the nearby molecules. Those near the droplet’s surface, however, are pulled mostly inward by the water molecules below them. This creates "surface tension." The surface of the water droplet is held together by the attraction between molecules.
Now, think about washing dirty dishes or clothing. There will be lots of tiny little holes and cracks that water needs to get into to wash away dirt and grime, such as the spaces between the fibers of a shirt or between a plate and bits of dried food. In order for water to flow more easily into these small spaces, you need to decrease its surface tension. You can do this by adding soap, which is a surfactant (a material that decreases the surface tension of a liquid). In this activity you will see how soap decreases the surface tension of water by putting water droplets on top of a penny.
- Medicine dropper or eyedropper
- Glass, cup or small bowl
- Tap water
- Dish soap
- Dish towel or paper towel
- Flat, level surface that can get wet, such as a kitchen counter
- Paper and pencil or pen (optional)
- Place your penny on a flat, level surface that can get a little wet, such as a kitchen counter.
- Fill a glass, cup or small bowl with tap water.
- Fill the medicine dropper with water.
- Now carefully add one drop of water at a time to the top of the penny. Hold the medicine dropper just above the top of the penny (not touching it) so each new drop has to fall a short distance before it merges with the drop on the penny. You can write down the number of drops you add if you like. How many drops of water do you think will fit on top of the penny? Watch the drop on top of the penny carefully as it grows. It should keep getting bigger and bigger until it touches the edges of the penny.
- Keep adding drops (refill your medicine dropper as necessary) one at a time. How big does the drop on the penny get before it finally spills over the edges?
- Once the drop spills over the penny’s edge, use a towel to completely dry off the penny and surrounding surface. How many drops of water were you able to add before the water ran over the penny’s sides?
- Mix a small amount of dish soap with your tap water.
- Now, repeat the experiment using soapy water. Do you think you will be able to add more drops or less before the liquid spills over the sides of the penny? Again, slowly add one drop at a time. How big does the drop of water on top of the penny get before it breaks and flows over the edges?
- Extra: Try the experiment with different liquids or other things you can find in your kitchen. (Make sure you have an adult's approval to use any liquids before you handle them.) How do different soaps and detergents like hand soap or laundry detergent compare with one another? What about other liquids like milk or juice? Which ones make the biggest (or smallest) drops? With the most or least number of drops?
- Extra: Try using something other than a penny to collect the droplets. What happens if you use different materials, such as the flat top of a small plastic bottle cap or a button?
Observations and results
You should find that plain tap water produces a much larger, stable drop of water on top of the penny than the soapy water does. This is because plain tap water has higher surface tension, so the surface is "stronger" and can hold together a larger drop. Adding soap lowers the water’s surface tension so the drop becomes weaker and breaks apart sooner. Making water molecules stick together less is what helps soaps clean dishes and clothes more easily.
More to explore
Sticky Water, from Exploratorium
Soap, from Exploratorium
Measuring Surface Tension of Water with a Penny, from Science Buddies
Surface Tension Science: Build a Raft Powered by Soap, from Scientific American
Science Activities for All Ages!, from Science Buddies
This activity brought to you in partnership with Science Buddies