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A simple experiment for measuring the surface tension of soap solutions

F. L. Román, J. Faro, and S. Velasco


Departamento de Fı́sica Aplicada, Facultad de Ciencias, Universidad de Salamanca, 37008 Salamanca,
Spain
共Received 2 August 2000; accepted 22 January 2001兲
A simple experimental method for measuring the surface tension of a soap solution is proposed. In
the experiment, a soap solution bubble is inflated by a syringe that is also connected to a precision
manometer. By measuring the pressure change inside the bubble the surface tension can be
calculated using the Young–Laplace equation. Experimental results for both toilet and dishwasher
soap solutions are obtained. © 2001 American Association of Physics Teachers.
关DOI: 10.1119/1.1365402兴
I. INTRODUCTION 4␥
⌬ P⫽ , 共5兲
There are several techniques for making an accurate mea- r
surement of the surface tension of liquids.1 Unfortunately, where r is the radius of the bubble.
most of these techniques are not easy to implement as lab
exercises because of the presence of contaminants in the liq- III. EXPERIMENT
uid surface and the requirement of expensive apparatus, such The experimental setup is shown schematically in Fig. 1.
as very sensitive and well-equilibrated balances for measur- The apparatus consists of a 20 cm3 plastic syringe connected
ing the interfacial tension or accurate optical methods for both to a precision manometer and to a cylindrical tube 共⬃10
measuring the shape of drops or bubbles. In this paper we cm length兲 with known inner and outer diameters. The tube
propose a simple method for measuring the surface tension is kept vertical with the help of a clamp. The precision ma-
of a soap solution using a bubble method based on the nometer consists of an inclined tube of about 20 cm length
Young–Laplace equation for the pressure difference between connected to a reservoir containing a special tinted oil of
the inside and the outside of a bubble. The apparatus we known density. A graduated rule behind the inclined tube
report does not require especially careful handling and is allows us to measure pressure differences up to 200 Pa with
suitable for general physics laboratories. an uncertainty of ⫾1 Pa. This kind of manometer is available
commercially through several distributors,4 but it can be also
II. THEORY
constructed without much difficulty.
The Young–Laplace equation for a spherical bubble is After the system is prepared, we introduce the free end of
usually derived using mechanical arguments.1,2 Here we the vertical tube into a soap solution. This produces a thick
present a derivation based on a thermodynamic approach that film of solution at this end. In order to eliminate the excess
uses the minimization of the Helmholtz free energy liquid 共usually a pendant drop is formed at the end of the
function.3 We consider that the bubble consists of an incom- tube兲, we use a small piece of blotting paper. Next, we in-
pressible fluid film 共soap solution兲 enclosing a given amount sufflate air into the tube by using the syringe 共it is important
of gas 共air兲 occupying a volume V 1 . The Helmholtz function that this insufflating process be performed very slowly兲. As a
of the total system can be written as consequence, the soap solution film at the end of the tube
begins to distend as the pressure inside the bubble is raised.
F⫽F in⫹F out⫹F ss⫹F 1 ⫹F 2 , 共1兲
The maximum pressure difference ⌬ P max between the air
where F in and F out are the free energies of the gas inside and pressure inside the bubble and atmospheric pressure is
outside the bubble, F ss is the free energy of the volume of reached when the liquid film takes the form of a semispheri-
soap solution contained within inner and outer surfaces of cal cap with radius equal to the radius of the tube. Since the
area A 1 and A 2 and free energies F 1 and F 2 , respectively. At
constant temperature, the condition of minimum F,
dF in⫹dF out⫹dF ss⫹dF 1 ⫹dF 2 ⫽0, 共2兲
yields
⫺ 共 P in⫺ P out兲 dV 1 ⫹ ␥ dA 1 ⫹ ␥ dA 2 ⫽0, 共3兲
where P in and P out are the pressures inside and outside the
bubble, respectively, ␥ is the surface tension, and we have
taken dF ss⫽⫺ P ssdV ss⫽0 because the fluid is assumed to be
incompressible. Finally, by considering the inner and outer
surfaces as spherical with radii r 1 and r 2 , respectively, and
taking into account the fact that the incompressibility condi-
tion dV ss⫽0 implies r 21 dr 1 ⫽r 22 dr 2 , Eq. 共3兲 leads to

⌬ P⫽ P in⫺ P out⫽2 ␥ 冉 1

r1 r2
1
冊 , 共4兲
which is the well-known Young–Laplace equation for the Fig. 1. Experimental setup for measuring the surface tension of a soap
pressure difference between the gas inside and outside of a solution. The precision manometer measures the pressure difference be-
spherical bubble. For large enough bubbles, the inner and tween the inside and the outside of a bubble formed at the end of a tube by
outer radii are practically equal and Eq. 共4兲 can be written as insufflating air with the syringe.

920 Am. J. Phys. 69 共8兲, August 2001 http://ojps.aip.org/ajp/ © 2001 American Association of Physics Teachers 920
soap solution is not the same thickness as the tube wall, it is
reasonable to use Eq. 共5兲 with r given by an average radius
r ave⫽(r in⫹r out)/2, where r in and r out are the inner and outer
radii of the tube, respectively. Once the maximum pressure
difference is reached, if we continue the insufflating process
共now more quickly兲 the diameter of the bubble increases
while the pressure inside the bubble decreases. Finally, when
the air contained in the syringe is totally insufflated one ob-
tains a bubble with known radius, given by r ref
⫽(3V 0 /4␲ ) 1/3, V 0 being the initial volume of the air in the
syringe 共in this case V 0 ⫽20 cm3兲. The state of this bubble is
taken as a reference state for which the pressure difference
⌬ P ref is given by Eq. 共5兲 with r⫽r ref . The selection of this
state, instead of the initial one, as a reference state allows us
to avoid pitfalls due to possible pressure changes in the ini- Fig. 2. Plot of ⌬ P * vs 4/r * . Soap solution A 共circles兲 and soap solution B
tial state because of capillarity effects in the tube. 共squares兲.
The difference between the maximum pressure difference
and the pressure difference in the reference state is given by
4␥
⌬ P * ⬅⌬ P max⫺⌬ P ref⫽ , 共6兲 final 共after insufflating air兲 points. We find ⌬V⬃0.02 cm3,
r*
where 1/r * ⬅1/r ave⫺1/r ref . This procedure is repeated for which is negligible compared to V 0 when calculating r ref .
The experimental results are shown in Table I.
several tubes with different diameters. Plotting ⌬ P * vs 4/r * ,
Values of ⌬ P * vs 4/r * are plotted in Fig. 2 for both soap
a straight line should be obtained, where the slope is given
by ␥. solutions. Both sets of values of ⌬ P * were fitted by linear
regression. The values of ␥ obtained from the slope of each
IV. RESULTS AND SUMMARY linear regression are, with their standard errors, ␥ A ⫽0.0214
⫾0.0018 N/m and ␥ B ⫽0.0245⫾0.0018 N/m. A typical value
We have obtained the surface tensions of two different of ␥ reported in the pedagogical literature5 for aqueous soap
aqueous soap solutions made from two different kinds of solutions is ␥ ⫽0.0250 N/m.
soap: one with a liquid dishwasher soap 共soap A兲 and the In summary, a simple and accurate method for obtaining
other with a liquid toilet soap 共soap B兲. Both soap solutions the surface tension of a soap solution is proposed that uses
were made with a concentration of 10% by volume, and the the Young–Laplace equation for spherical bubbles. The
experiment was done at constant temperature T⫽19.5 method consists in forming a bubble at the end of a tube with
⫾0.1 °C and atmospheric pressure P a ⫽920 mbar. We have the help of a syringe and then measuring the pressure differ-
used five metallic tubes obtained from an old telescoping ence 共of the air inside the bubble兲 between the maximum
radio antenna, each with different inner and outer diameters pressure state, corresponding to a bubble size with radius
measured by a caliper to an uncertainty of ⫾0.005 cm. The equal to the average of the inner and outer radii of the tube,
initial volume in the syringe was V 0 ⫽20⫾0.1 cm3, so that and a reference state, corresponding to a bubble size with a
r ref⫽1.684⫾0.003 cm. It is worth noting that the final bub- volume equal to that of the air initially contained in the sy-
ble volume is not exactly V 0 but V 0 ⫺⌬V, where ⌬V is the ringe.
change in the volume above the manometer reservoir when
the liquid level changes due to a pressure change. ⌬V can be
determined from the radius 共⬃0.1 cm兲 of the inclined tube of ACKNOWLEDGMENT
the manometer and the difference between the lengths of the This work was supported by the Comisión Interministerial
manometric liquid at the initial 共before insufflating air兲 and de Ciencia y Tecnologı́a 共CICYT兲 of Spain under Grant No.
PB 98-0261.
Table I. Experimental data values obtained using Eq. 共6兲 for two soap so-
lutions, A and B. The volume of total insufflated air was in both cases V 0 1
A. W. Adamson, Physical Chemistry of Surfaces 共Wiley-Interscience, New
⫽20.0⫾0.1 cm3. The inner and outer radii of the tube where the bubble was
York, 1990兲, 5th ed., pp. 4 – 45.
formed are denoted as r in and r out . 2
F. W. Sears and M. W. Zemansky, Physics 共Addison–Wesley, Reading,
MA, 1964兲, 3rd ed., Chap. 13.
r in 共cm兲 r out 共cm兲 ⌬ P A* 共Pa兲 ⌬ P B* 共Pa兲 3
J. Pellicer, J. A. Manzanares, and S. Mafé, ‘‘The physical description of
0.160 0.180 47⫾1 55⫾1 elementary surface phenomena: Thermodynamics versus mechanics,’’ Am.
0.200 0.220 37⫾1 42⫾1 J. Phys. 63, 542–547 共1995兲.
4
The precision liquid manometer used in this experiment is produced by
0.225 0.245 33⫾1 38⫾1
PHYWE SYSTEME GMBH 共D-37070 Göttingen, Germany兲, model
0.280 0.300 25⫾1 30⫾1
03091.00.
0.385 0.405 17⫾1 20⫾1 5
Reference 2, Table 13.1.

921 Am. J. Phys., Vol. 69, No. 8, August 2001 Apparatus and Demonstration Notes 921