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Surface Tension in Chemistry

Factors that influence the elastic force in a liquid’s surface

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Surface Tension

This insect is able to stand on water because of surface tension

Credit: Gordon Wrigley
Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tolomea/5510378168/
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

How is this insect able to stand on water?

The next time you are by a still body of water, take a close look at what is scooting along on the surface. You may see insects seemingly floating on top of the water. These creatures are known by a variety of names including water skaters, water striders, pond skaters, and other equally descriptive names. They take advantage of a property called surface tension to stay above the water and not sink. The force they exert downward is less than the forces exerted among the water molecules on the surface of the pond, so the insect does not penetrate beneath the surface of the water.

Surface Tension

Molecules within a liquid are pulled equally in all directions by intermolecular forces. However, molecules at the surface are pulled downwards and sideways by other liquid molecules, but not upwards away from the surface. The overall effect is that the surface molecules are pulled into the liquid, creating a surface that is tightened like a film (see A in Figure below). The surface tension of a liquid is a measure of the elastic force in the liquid’s surface. Liquids that have strong intermolecular forces, like the hydrogen bonding in water, exhibit the greatest surface tension. Surface tension allows objects that are denser than water, such as the paper clip shown in B in Figure below, to nonetheless float on its surface. It is also responsible for the beading up of water droplets on a freshly waxed car because there are no attractions between the polar water molecules and the nonpolar wax.

Surface tension is created because liquid boundaries lack intramolecular forces

Credit: (A) User:Füsiahh/Wikimedia Commons; (B) User:Kaldari/Wikimedia Commons
Source: (A) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wassermolek%C3%BCleInTr%C3%B6pfchen-2.svg; (B) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Water_surface_tension_2.jpg
License: CC BY-NC 3.0

(A) Molecules at the surface of a liquid are pulled downwards into the liquid, creating a tightened surface. (B) Surface tension allows a paper clip to float on water’s surface.[Figure2]

Other liquids, such as diethyl ether, do not demonstrate strong surface tension interactions. The intermolecular forces for the ether are the relatively weak dipole-dipole interactions that do not draw the molecules together as tightly as hydrogen bonds would. 

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  • The surface tension of a liquid is a measure of the elastic force in the liquid’s surface.
  • Liquids with strong intermolecular forces have higher surface tensions than liquids with weaker forces.


  1. Define surface tension.
  2. What is responsible for the strong surface tension in water?
  3. Does diethyl ether have a stronger or weaker surface tension than water?

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Image Attributions

  1. [1]^ Credit: Gordon Wrigley; Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/tolomea/5510378168/; License: CC BY-NC 3.0
  2. [2]^ Credit: (A) User:Füsiahh/Wikimedia Commons; (B) User:Kaldari/Wikimedia Commons; Source: (A) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wassermolek%C3%BCleInTr%C3%B6pfchen-2.svg; (B) http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Water_surface_tension_2.jpg; License: CC BY-NC 3.0

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