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Surface Tension vs. Capillary Action: What's the Difference?

Edited by Sara Rehman || By Sumera Saeed || Published on January 9, 2024
Surface tension is the elastic tendency of liquids due to intermolecular forces at the surface, whereas capillary action is the ability of a liquid to flow in narrow spaces without external forces like gravity.

Key Differences

Surface tension is a physical phenomenon where the surface of a liquid, in contact with gas, acts like a thin elastic sheet due to cohesive forces between liquid molecules. In contrast, capillary action occurs when a liquid moves up a narrow tube or porous material due to adhesive forces between the liquid and the material's surface.
Sara Rehman
Jan 09, 2024
The key factor in surface tension is the imbalance of intermolecular forces experienced by molecules on the surface of a liquid. Conversely, capillary action results from the combination of surface tension and the adhesive forces between the liquid and the capillary wall.
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024
Surface tension is often observed when small objects float on a liquid surface without sinking, a result of the liquid's resistance to external force. Capillary action, however, is evident when liquids defy gravity, as seen when water travels up a plant's roots and stems.
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024
Measuring surface tension involves assessing the force needed to break the surface of a liquid. On the other hand, capillary action is measured by the height to which a liquid can climb against gravity in a narrow space.
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024
Applications of surface tension include the formation of bubbles and droplets, whereas capillary action is critical in processes like ink flow in pens and water movement in plants.
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024
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Comparison Chart

Definition

Elasticity of liquid surfaces
Liquid's movement in narrow spaces
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024

Primary Forces

Cohesive forces among liquid molecules
Adhesive forces between liquid and surface
Sara Rehman
Jan 09, 2024

Observable Effects

Formation of droplets, bubbles
Rise or fall of liquid in tubes or porous media
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024

Measurement

Force required to break liquid surface
Height liquid climbs against gravity
Harlon Moss
Jan 09, 2024

Examples of Applications

Soap bubbles, water striders
Plant water transport, paper towels absorbing
Aimie Carlson
Jan 09, 2024
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Surface Tension and Capillary Action Definitions

Surface Tension

Energy required to increase the surface area of a liquid.
Soap reduces the surface tension of water, aiding cleaning.
Sumera Saeed
Dec 27, 2023

Capillary Action

Liquid's ability to flow against external forces.
Paper towels absorb spills by capillary action.
Janet White
Dec 27, 2023

Surface Tension

Balance of attractive forces at a liquid-gas interface.
Raindrops form spheres due to surface tension.
Sumera Saeed
Dec 27, 2023

Capillary Action

Movement of liquid within narrow spaces against gravity.
Water moves up a thin tube due to capillary action.
Sumera Saeed
Dec 27, 2023

Surface Tension

Cohesive force at a liquid's surface.
Water droplets form beads on a waxed car due to surface tension.
Sumera Saeed
Dec 27, 2023

Capillary Action

Interaction of cohesive and adhesive forces in liquids.
Capillary action is why a sponge absorbs water.
Sumera Saeed
Dec 27, 2023

Surface Tension

Measure of the elasticity of a liquid surface.
Surface tension allows small insects to walk on water.
Sumera Saeed
Dec 27, 2023

Capillary Action

Liquid flow in porous materials or thin tubes.
Ink travels in a pen's nib through capillary action.
Sara Rehman
Dec 27, 2023

Surface Tension

Force acting perpendicularly to a liquid surface.
Surface tension keeps a paper clip floating on water.
Aimie Carlson
Dec 27, 2023

Capillary Action

Rise or fall of a liquid in a small passage.
Plant roots use capillary action to draw water from the soil.
Janet White
Dec 27, 2023

FAQs

Can surface tension be reduced?

Yes, surface tension can be reduced by substances like detergents.
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024

Is surface tension the same for all liquids?

No, surface tension varies between liquids due to differences in molecular structure.
Harlon Moss
Jan 09, 2024

What factors affect capillary action?

Capillary action is influenced by the liquid's surface tension and the adhesive forces between the liquid and the tube or material.
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024

How does capillary action benefit plants?

Capillary action allows plants to transport water from roots to leaves.
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024

What causes surface tension?

Surface tension is caused by cohesive forces between liquid molecules at the surface.
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024

What is a practical application of surface tension?

A practical application is the use of droppers in medicine, relying on surface tension to form droplets.
Aimie Carlson
Jan 09, 2024

What role does surface tension play in nature?

Surface tension is crucial for phenomena like water striders walking on water.
Janet White
Jan 09, 2024

Can capillary action occur in all liquids?

Capillary action can occur in most liquids, but its effectiveness varies based on liquid properties and the material of the capillary.
Aimie Carlson
Jan 09, 2024

How do detergents affect capillary action?

Detergents can reduce the surface tension, potentially altering capillary action.
Janet White
Jan 09, 2024

How does surface tension affect water droplets?

Surface tension makes water droplets form spherical shapes to minimize surface area.
Sara Rehman
Jan 09, 2024

What is capillary action?

Capillary action is the ability of a liquid to flow in narrow spaces without external forces.
Aimie Carlson
Jan 09, 2024

Is capillary action a form of surface tension?

Capillary action is related to but distinct from surface tension, involving both cohesive and adhesive forces.
Harlon Moss
Jan 09, 2024

Can surface tension support weight?

Yes, surface tension can support small objects, like paper clips, on the water surface.
Harlon Moss
Jan 09, 2024

Can surface tension purify water?

Surface tension plays a role in water purification, affecting how contaminants interact with water.
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024

Is capillary action always upwards?

Capillary action can be upwards or downwards, depending on the orientation of the capillary and gravity.
Janet White
Jan 09, 2024

How does gravity affect capillary action?

Gravity can counteract capillary action, influencing the height to which a liquid can rise.
Harlon Moss
Jan 09, 2024

What is an example of capillary action in everyday life?

An example is the wicking of liquid in a towel or cloth.
Aimie Carlson
Jan 09, 2024

Does temperature affect surface tension?

Yes, surface tension typically decreases with increasing temperature.
Sumera Saeed
Jan 09, 2024

Do all materials show capillary action?

Capillary action varies with materials, being more pronounced in porous or fibrous materials.
Harlon Moss
Jan 09, 2024

How do you measure surface tension?

Surface tension can be measured using methods like the Du Noüy ring method.
Aimie Carlson
Jan 09, 2024
About Author
Written by
Sumera Saeed
Sumera is an experienced content writer and editor with a niche in comparative analysis. At Diffeence Wiki, she crafts clear and unbiased comparisons to guide readers in making informed decisions. With a dedication to thorough research and quality, Sumera's work stands out in the digital realm. Off the clock, she enjoys reading and exploring diverse cultures.
Edited by
Sara Rehman
Sara Rehman is a seasoned writer and editor with extensive experience at Difference Wiki. Holding a Master's degree in Information Technology, she combines her academic prowess with her passion for writing to deliver insightful and well-researched content.

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