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Module 6: Laplace Pressure and Young Laplace Equation

Lecture 6: Laplace Pressure and Young Laplace Equation

6.0 Laplace Pressure and Young Laplace Equation

So far our basic Fluid Dynamics knowledge has taught us that for a fluid surface which is
stagnant and is in mechanical equilibrium, the pressure on the two sides of the surface is equal.
For example, if we consider a tank full of water exposed to atmosphere, then at the liquid air
interface the pressure on both sides of the interface is Patm. At any point at a depth h from the
interface the absolute pressure would be Patm + gh (where is the density of the fluid), and this
situation is referred to as the pressure distribution is purely hydrostatic. The implicit
assumption that goes in when we consider the above example is that the liquid air interface is
perfectly flat. However what happens in case the interface is NOT flat, or has a curvature? We
will discuss those cases in this chapter and introduce the very important concept of Laplace
Pressure. In case you are wondering why or where can a liquid air interface be flat, then let me
remind you that in your senior school you were taught about Parallax Error and was also
cautioned how to take the correct reading, when measuring the rise of a liquid column through a
narrow capillary tube.
The discontinuity in pressure across a non planar interface was discovered by Thomas Young
(1805) and Pierre-Simon Laplace (1806). A spherical interface is a special case of a general non
planar interface. Any general curved surface at any point can be identified in terms of two local
radius of curvature (R1 and R2) orthogonal to each other at that point. For a spherical interface
the two orthogonal radius of curvature are same, and that makes calculations simpler
(R1=R2=R)! For a spherical interface, the law expresses the pressure discontinuity at a given
point (P) of an interface as
P = 2/R


As already discussed in earlier, in a non condensed liquid phase, the curvature is caused due to
surface tension and consequently results in a pressure imbalance. Due to inward resultant or
effective attraction, the molecules reorganize themselves and this re organization is based on
energy minimization. This is also the phenomenon that forms a meniscus and the pressure

difference on the either sides of meniscus leads to the development of a net normal force, which
is balanced by surface.
We now look at how the expression given in equation 6.1 can be obtained mathematically. Let us
consider a liquid bubble of radius R, shown in figure 6.1. Lets say the pressure inside and outside
the bubble is P// and P/ respectively. Now lets consider that the size of the bubble expands from
R to R + dR. The work necessary for the expansion W is given as

Figure 6.1: Schematic of Liquid Drop under consideration





As a manifestation of increase of radius, the surface energy of the bubble increases. Consequent
to this, Es (energy of interaction of a pair of molecules at surface) changes by dEs.
Therefore, combining equations (6.4) and (6.5), we get

Which eventually gives


From equation (6.7), we can say that P is positive and hence the P// ie the pressure in the
concave side is higher than P/.
6.1 Expression of Young Laplace Equation for a non spherical Curved Surface
Consider a non spherical curved surface of area xy. Any point in 3-D space needs to be defined
by 3 co-ordinates and any surface in 3-D phase can be represented by 2 curvatures.

Figure 6.2: View of a segment of the expanded spherical surface along with projections along X and Y axis.

On supplying some energy, the change in surface area, dA can be written as

Change in surface energy,


Work done,


Now, assuming that the vales of the angles of the curved surface, and are very small, the two
parts of the curved surface can be treated as similar triangles and hence from figure it can be seen





Therefore, substituting equations (6.11) and (6.12) in equation (6.10) we have

Now comparing equation (6.9) and (6.13), we get


This is the expression for Young-Laplace equation for a n arbitrarily curved surface with at any
point where the two orthogonal Radii of curvature are R1 and R2 respectively. Further, R1 and
R2 may not be uniquely defined but their combination is unique and represents the curvature of
the surface. Further, if P is known, then the curvature of the surface can be determined at
equilibrium using Young-Laplace equation. However, the problem is, for any arbitrary curved
surface, at every point R1 and R2 may not be known. Thus, the following formulation of the
same equation for an axi symmetric surface becomes important.

Figure 6.3: Some examples of Axi-symmetric surfaces: (A) Cone; (B) Cylinder; (C) Cylindrical Surface; (D)
Converging Nozzle.

6.2 Generalized Expression for Young-Laplace Equation for an Axi-Symmetric Surface

An axi-symmetric surface is a type of a surface that can be generated by rotating a line segment
or a curve about an axis by 360 in space. For example, if a line segment is rotated around
another vertical line, one would get a cone. In case the line segment that is rotated is parallel to
the line around which it is rotated, then one would get a cylinder. Similarly, if one rotates an arc,
one would get a curved surface. Some examples of axi-symmetric surfaces can be seen in figure
6.3. We will soon realize that some additional simplification is possible in the expression of
Laplace pressure for an axi-symmetric liquid surface.

To develop the formalism for the Laplace pressure on a curved axi symmetric surface we first
look at the Helmholtz free energy of the surface. It is the thermodynamic potential that measures
the useful work obtainable from a closed thermodynamic system at a constant temperature and
volume. It is minimized at equilibrium. It is the maximum amount of work extractable from a
thermodynamic process at constant volume and temperature. If F represents Helmholtz free
energy, U is internal energy of the system, S is the entropy and j gives the surface tension, then
F is given as

From the first law of thermodynamics

ixi gives the Gibbs free energy (G) which represents the useful or process initiating work
obtainable for an isothermal or isobaric thermodynamic system. It is the measure of maximum
non-expansion work that can be extracted from a closed reversible system. As S and V are
extensive variables,
From equations 6.15, 6.16 and 6.17 we get

Figure 6.4: Construction of elemental area on an axi symmetric surface

Consider an axi-symmetic surface as shown in figure created by rotating any curved surface
about an axis. From x0 to xR gives the extent of the phase in x direction. If z=f(x) is known,
then we know the equation of the surface and F will represent the energy of the surface as a
function of shape. In particular, the intention is to find out a specific shape that corresponds to
the optima of energy which will also correspond to the shape of the surface at equilibrium.
For a two component system
Total volume, V = V + V


As we want to look at the variation of energy (F) as V is changed, with total volume (V)
remaining constant.
Now, writing in terms of the shape of the interface gives
The area of an axi-symmetric surface and volume can be given as

For small values of dz and dx, dl can be assumed to be a straight line which results in the above
Now, putting equations in equation, we have


As the surface is axi-symmetric, we have Z = f(x). However, we would like to optimize F. F is to

be optimized with respect to x. However, F is NOT an explicit function of x
Rather F is of the form


This is what is known as a functional. Evaluation of the optimum of a functional falls in the
branch of mathematics known as Calculus of Variations
The necessary condition of for optima for a functional F is


We will not discuss any more details about calculus of variation and would progress based on the
above expression.
For our system,


Now we evaluate the individual consistent terms:-


Therefore, we get

We look at the last two terms of the above expression

Substituting these equations in the condition of optima and rearranging, we have

This is the general form of Young-Laplace equation for an axi-symmetric surface.

The equation is analogous to


Which is a much simpler looking equation. However, in space it is not possible to determine R1
and R2 for an arbitrarily curved surface, and therefore though the expression is simple, obtaining
P at every point of a non planar surface/interface cannot be dome directly. In contrast, as
already mentioned, for an axi-symmetric surface it is indeed possible to express Z = f(x) and
therefore one can analytically evaluate Zx and Zxx and therefore P can be calculated.
A question to ask at this point is is there a physical significance of the two terms. Of course we
understand that one of the terms corresponds to 1/R1 and the other one corresponds to 1/R2. Can
one refer to any of the term as 1/R1 and 1/R2?
However, it turns out that the choice of R1 and R2 are based on convention. Typically the 1/R1
term refers to the in plane curvature and 1/R2 is the out of plane curvature.
It turns out that the general equation for axi-symmetric surface we have

The utility of this equation lies in the fact that if the equation of the line/ arc is known, which has
lead to the creation of the surface; then the Laplace pressure can be calculated. This is in fact
achievable. In fact, though equation 6.32 looks simple, as we have already said, it is often not
possible to measure R1 and R2 in real situation.