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16.2: The Liquid State

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    Learning Objectives
    • To describe the unique properties of liquids.

    Although you have been introduced to some of the interactions that hold molecules together in a liquid, we have not yet discussed the consequences of those interactions for the bulk properties of liquids. We now turn our attention to three unique properties of liquids that intimately depend on the nature of intermolecular interactions:

    • surface tension,
    • capillary action, and
    • viscosity.

    Surface Tension

    If liquids tend to adopt the shapes of their containers, then why do small amounts of water on a freshly waxed car form raised droplets instead of a thin, continuous film? The answer lies in a property called surface tension, which depends on intermolecular forces. Surface tension is the energy required to increase the surface area of a liquid by a unit amount and varies greatly from liquid to liquid based on the nature of the intermolecular forces, e.g., water with hydrogen bonds has a surface tension of 7.29 x 10-2 J/m2 (at 20°C), while mercury with metallic bonds has as surface tension that is 15 times higher: 4.86 x 10-1 J/m2 (at 20°C).

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\) presents a microscopic view of a liquid droplet. A typical molecule in the interior of the droplet is surrounded by other molecules that exert attractive forces from all directions. Consequently, there is no net force on the molecule that would cause it to move in a particular direction. In contrast, a molecule on the surface experiences a net attraction toward the drop because there are no molecules on the outside to balance the forces exerted by adjacent molecules in the interior. Because a sphere has the smallest possible surface area for a given volume, intermolecular attractive interactions between water molecules cause the droplet to adopt a spherical shape. This maximizes the number of attractive interactions and minimizes the number of water molecules at the surface. Hence raindrops are almost spherical, and drops of water on a waxed (nonpolar) surface, which does not interact strongly with water, form round beads. A dirty car is covered with a mixture of substances, some of which are polar. Attractive interactions between the polar substances and water cause the water to spread out into a thin film instead of forming beads.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): A Representation of Surface Tension in a Liquid. Molecules at the surface of water experience a net attraction to other molecules in the liquid, which holds the surface of the bulk sample together. In contrast, those in the interior experience uniform attractive forces.

    The same phenomenon holds molecules together at the surface of a bulk sample of water, almost as if they formed a skin. When filling a glass with water, the glass can be overfilled so that the level of the liquid actually extends above the rim. Similarly, a sewing needle or a paper clip can be placed on the surface of a glass of water where it “floats,” even though steel is much denser than water. Many insects take advantage of this property to walk on the surface of puddles or ponds without sinking. This is even observable in the zero gravity conditions of space as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\) (and more so in the video link) where water wrung from a wet towel continues to float along the towel's surface!

    A man wrings out a wet towel. The water surrounds the towel like a bubble due to high surface tension.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): The Effects of the High Surface Tension of Liquid Water. The full video can be found at

    Such phenomena are manifestations of surface tension, which is defined as the energy required to increase the surface area of a liquid by a specific amount. Surface tension is therefore measured as energy per unit area, such as joules per square meter (J/m2) or dyne per centimeter (dyn/cm), where 1 dyn = 1 × 10−5 N. The values of the surface tension of some representative liquids are listed in Table \(\PageIndex{1}\). Note the correlation between the surface tension of a liquid and the strength of the intermolecular forces: the stronger the intermolecular forces, the higher the surface tension. For example, water, with its strong intermolecular hydrogen bonding, has one of the highest surface tension values of any liquid, whereas low-boiling-point organic molecules, which have relatively weak intermolecular forces, have much lower surface tensions. Mercury is an apparent anomaly, but its very high surface tension is due to the presence of strong metallic bonding.

    Table \(\PageIndex{1}\): Surface Tension, Viscosity, Vapor Pressure (at 25°C Unless Otherwise Indicated), and Normal Boiling Points of Common Liquids
    Substance Surface Tension (× 10−3 J/m2) Viscosity (mPa•s) Vapor Pressure (mmHg) Normal Boiling Point (°C)
    Organic Compounds
    diethyl ether 17 0.22 531 34.6
    n-hexane 18 0.30 149 68.7
    acetone 23 0.31 227 56.5
    ethanol 22 1.07 59 78.3
    ethylene glycol 48 16.1 ~0.08 198.9
    Liquid Elements
    bromine 41 0.94 218 58.8
    mercury 486 1.53 0.0020 357
    0°C 75.6 1.79 4.6
    20°C 72.8 1.00 17.5
    60°C 66.2 0.47 149
    100°C 58.9 0.28 760

    Adding soaps and detergents that disrupt the intermolecular attractions between adjacent water molecules can reduce the surface tension of water. Because they affect the surface properties of a liquid, soaps and detergents are called surface-active agents, or surfactants. In the 1960s, US Navy researchers developed a method of fighting fires aboard aircraft carriers using “foams,” which are aqueous solutions of fluorinated surfactants. The surfactants reduce the surface tension of water below that of fuel, so the fluorinated solution is able to spread across the burning surface and extinguish the fire. Such foams are now used universally to fight large-scale fires of organic liquids.

    Capillary Action

    Intermolecular forces also cause a phenomenon called capillary action, which is the tendency of a polar liquid to rise against gravity into a small-diameter tube (a capillary), as shown in Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\). When a glass capillary is is placed in liquid water, water rises up into the capillary. The height to which the water rises depends on the diameter of the tube and the temperature of the water but not on the angle at which the tube enters the water. The smaller the diameter, the higher the liquid rises.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): The Phenomenon of Capillary Action. Capillary action seen as water climbs to different levels in glass tubes of different diameters. Credit: Dr. Clay Robinson, PhD, West Texas A&M University.
    • Cohesive forces bind molecules of the same type together
    • Adhesive forces bind a substance to a surface

    Capillary action is the net result of two opposing sets of forces: cohesive forces, which are the intermolecular forces that hold a liquid together, and adhesive forces, which are the attractive forces between a liquid and the substance that composes the capillary. Water has both strong adhesion to glass, which contains polar SiOH groups, and strong intermolecular cohesion. When a glass capillary is put into water, the surface tension due to cohesive forces constricts the surface area of water within the tube, while adhesion between the water and the glass creates an upward force that maximizes the amount of glass surface in contact with the water. If the adhesive forces are stronger than the cohesive forces, as is the case for water, then the liquid in the capillary rises to the level where the downward force of gravity exactly balances this upward force. If, however, the cohesive forces are stronger than the adhesive forces, as is the case for mercury and glass, the liquid pulls itself down into the capillary below the surface of the bulk liquid to minimize contact with the glass (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)). The upper surface of a liquid in a tube is called the meniscus, and the shape of the meniscus depends on the relative strengths of the cohesive and adhesive forces. In liquids such as water, the meniscus is concave; in liquids such as mercury, however, which have very strong cohesive forces and weak adhesion to glass, the meniscus is convex (Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\)).

    Mercury has a dome shape while water is the opposite for their meniscus shape.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): The Phenomenon of Capillary Action. Capillary action of water compared to mercury, in each case with respect to a polar surface such as glass. Differences in the relative strengths of cohesive and adhesive forces result in different meniscus shapes for mercury (left) and water (right) in glass tubes. (credit: Mark Ott)

    Polar substances are drawn up a glass capillary and generally have a concave meniscus.

    Fluids and nutrients are transported up the stems of plants or the trunks of trees by capillary action. Plants contain tiny rigid tubes composed of cellulose, to which water has strong adhesion. Because of the strong adhesive forces, nutrients can be transported from the roots to the tops of trees that are more than 50 m tall. Cotton towels are also made of cellulose; they absorb water because the tiny tubes act like capillaries and “wick” the water away from your skin. The moisture is absorbed by the entire fabric, not just the layer in contact with your body.


    Viscosity (η) is the resistance of a liquid to flow. Some liquids, such as gasoline, ethanol, and water, flow very readily and hence have a low viscosity. Others, such as motor oil, molasses, and maple syrup, flow very slowly and have a high viscosity. The two most common methods for evaluating the viscosity of a liquid are (1) to measure the time it takes for a quantity of liquid to flow through a narrow vertical tube and (2) to measure the time it takes steel balls to fall through a given volume of the liquid. The higher the viscosity, the slower the liquid flows through the tube and the steel balls fall. Viscosity is expressed in units of the poise (mPa•s); the higher the number, the higher the viscosity. The viscosities of some representative liquids are listed in Table 11.3.1 and show a correlation between viscosity and intermolecular forces. Because a liquid can flow only if the molecules can move past one another with minimal resistance, strong intermolecular attractive forces make it more difficult for molecules to move with respect to one another. The addition of a second hydroxyl group to ethanol, for example, which produces ethylene glycol (HOCH2CH2OH), increases the viscosity 15-fold. This effect is due to the increased number of hydrogen bonds that can form between hydroxyl groups in adjacent molecules, resulting in dramatically stronger intermolecular attractive forces.


    There is also a correlation between viscosity and molecular shape. Liquids consisting of long, flexible molecules tend to have higher viscosities than those composed of more spherical or shorter-chain molecules. The longer the molecules, the easier it is for them to become “tangled” with one another, making it more difficult for them to move past one another. London dispersion forces also increase with chain length. Due to a combination of these two effects, long-chain hydrocarbons (such as motor oils) are highly viscous.

    Viscosity increases as intermolecular interactions or molecular size increases.

    Video Discussing Surface Tension and Viscosity. Video Link: Surface Tension, Viscosity, & Melting Point, YouTube(opens in new window) []

    Application: Motor Oils

    Motor oils and other lubricants demonstrate the practical importance of controlling viscosity. The oil in an automobile engine must effectively lubricate under a wide range of conditions, from subzero starting temperatures to the 200°C that oil can reach in an engine in the heat of the Mojave Desert in August. Viscosity decreases rapidly with increasing temperatures because the kinetic energy of the molecules increases, and higher kinetic energy enables the molecules to overcome the attractive forces that prevent the liquid from flowing. As a result, an oil that is thin enough to be a good lubricant in a cold engine will become too “thin” (have too low a viscosity) to be effective at high temperatures.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Oil being drained from a car

    The viscosity of motor oils is described by an SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) rating ranging from SAE 5 to SAE 50 for engine oils: the lower the number, the lower the viscosity (Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\)). So-called single-grade oils can cause major problems. If they are viscous enough to work at high operating temperatures (SAE 50, for example), then at low temperatures, they can be so viscous that a car is difficult to start or an engine is not properly lubricated. Consequently, most modern oils are multigrade, with designations such as SAE 20W/50 (a grade used in high-performance sports cars), in which case the oil has the viscosity of an SAE 20 oil at subzero temperatures (hence the W for winter) and the viscosity of an SAE 50 oil at high temperatures. These properties are achieved by a careful blend of additives that modulate the intermolecular interactions in the oil, thereby controlling the temperature dependence of the viscosity. Many of the commercially available oil additives “for improved engine performance” are highly viscous materials that increase the viscosity and effective SAE rating of the oil, but overusing these additives can cause the same problems experienced with highly viscous single-grade oils.

    Example \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Based on the nature and strength of the intermolecular cohesive forces and the probable nature of the liquid–glass adhesive forces, predict what will happen when a glass capillary is put into a beaker of SAE 20 motor oil. Will the oil be pulled up into the tube by capillary action or pushed down below the surface of the liquid in the beaker? What will be the shape of the meniscus (convex or concave)? (Hint: the surface of glass is lined with Si–OH groups.)

    Given: substance and composition of the glass surface

    Asked for: behavior of oil and the shape of meniscus

    1. Identify the cohesive forces in the motor oil.
    2. Determine whether the forces interact with the surface of glass. From the strength of this interaction, predict the behavior of the oil and the shape of the meniscus.

    A Motor oil is a nonpolar liquid consisting largely of hydrocarbon chains. The cohesive forces responsible for its high boiling point are almost solely London dispersion forces between the hydrocarbon chains.

    B Such a liquid cannot form strong interactions with the polar Si–OH groups of glass, so the surface of the oil inside the capillary will be lower than the level of the liquid in the beaker. The oil will have a convex meniscus similar to that of mercury.

    Exercise \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Predict what will happen when a glass capillary is put into a beaker of ethylene glycol. Will the ethylene glycol be pulled up into the tube by capillary action or pushed down below the surface of the liquid in the beaker? What will be the shape of the meniscus (convex or concave)?


    Capillary action will pull the ethylene glycol up into the capillary. The meniscus will be concave.


    Surface tension, capillary action, and viscosity are unique properties of liquids that depend on the nature of intermolecular interactions. Surface tension is the energy required to increase the surface area of a liquid by a given amount. The stronger the intermolecular interactions, the greater the surface tension. Surfactants are molecules, such as soaps and detergents, that reduce the surface tension of polar liquids like water. Capillary action is the phenomenon in which liquids rise up into a narrow tube called a capillary. It results when cohesive forces, the intermolecular forces in the liquid, are weaker than adhesive forces, the attraction between a liquid and the surface of the capillary. The shape of the meniscus, the upper surface of a liquid in a tube, also reflects the balance between adhesive and cohesive forces. The viscosity of a liquid is its resistance to flow. Liquids that have strong intermolecular forces tend to have high viscosities.

    16.2: The Liquid State is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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