Capillary action

Even if you’ve never heard of capillary action, it is still important in your life. Capillary action is important for moving water (and all of the things that are dissolved in it) around. It is defined as the movement of water within the spaces of a porous material due to the forces of adhesion, cohesion, and surface tension.



Capillary action occurs because water is sticky, thanks to the forces of cohesion (water molecules like to stay close together) and adhesion (water molecules are attracted and stick to other substances). Adhesion of water to the walls of a vessel will cause an upward force on the liquid at the edges and result in a meniscus which turns upward. The surface tension acts to hold the surface intact. Capillary action occurs when the adhesion to the walls is stronger than the cohesive forces between the liquid molecules. The height to which capillary action will take water in a uniform circular tube (picture to left) is limited by surface tension and, of course, gravity.

Not only does water tend to stick together in a drop, it sticks to glass, cloth, organic tissues, soil, and, luckily, to the fibers in a paper towel. Dip a paper towel into a glass of water and the water will “climb” onto the paper towel. In fact, it will keep going up the towel until the pull of gravity is too much for it to overcome.

Capillary action is all around us every day



  • When you spill your glass of BubblyBerryPowerGo (which is, of course, mostly water) on the kitchen table you rush to get a paper towel to wipe it up. First, you can thank surface tension, which keeps the liquid in a nice puddle on the table, instead of a thin film of sugary goo that spreads out onto the floor. When you put the paper towel onto your mess the liquid adheres itself to the paper fibers and the liquid moves to the spaces between and inside of the fibers. Obviously, Mona Lisa is a fan of capillary action.
  • Plants and trees couldn’t thrive without capillary action. Plants put down roots into the soil which are capable of carrying water from the soil up into the plant. Water, which contains dissolved nutrients, gets inside the roots and starts climbing up the plant tissue. As water molecule #1 starts climbing, it pulls along water molecule #2, which, of course, is dragging water molecule #3, and so on.
  • Capillary action is also essential for the drainage of constantly produced tear fluid from the eye. Two tiny-diameter tubes, the lacrimal ducts, are present in the inner corner of the eyelid; these ducts secrete tears into the eye. (Wikipedia)
  • Maybe you’ve used a fountain pen …. or maybe your parents or grandparents did. The ink moves from a reservoir in the body of the pen down to the tip and into the paper (which is composed of tiny paper fibers and air spaces between them), and not just turning into a blob. Of course gravity is responsible for the ink moving “downhill” to the pen tip, but capillary action is needed to keep the ink flowing onto the paper.

The proof is in the pudding … I mean, in the celery


You can see capillary action in action (although slowly) by doing an experiment where you place the bottom of a celery stalk in a glass of water with food coloring and watch for the movement of the color to the top leaves of the celery.

You might want to use a piece of celery that has begun to whither, as it is in need of a quick drink. It can take a few days, but, as these pictures show, the colored water is “drawn” upward, against the pull of gravity. This effect happens because, in plants, water molecules move through narrow tubes that are called capillaries (or xylem).


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