Surface tension is a property of the surface of a liquid. It is what causes the surface portion of liquid to be attracted to another surface, such as that of another portion of liquid (as in connecting bits of water or as in a drop of mercury that forms a cohesive ball).
Surface tension is caused by cohesion (the attraction of molecules to like molecules). Since the molecules on the surface of the liquid are not surrounded by like molecules on all sides, they are more attracted to their neighbors on the surface.
Applying Newtonian physics to the forces that arise due to surface tension accurately predicts many liquid behaviors that are so commonplace that most people take them for granted. Applying thermodynamics to those same forces further predicts other more subtle liquid behaviors.
Surface tension has the dimension of force per unit length, or of energy per unit area. The two are equivalent — but when referring to energy per unit of area, people use the term surface energy — which is a more general term in the sense that it applies also to solids and not just liquids.
In materials science, surface tension is used for either surface stress or surface free energy.
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Surface tension is caused by the attraction between the liquid's molecules by various intermolecular forces. In the bulk of the liquid, each molecule is pulled equally in every direction by neighbouring liquid molecules, resulting in a net force of zero. At the surface of the liquid, the molecules are pulled inwards by other molecules deeper inside the liquid and are not attracted as intensely by the molecules in the neighbouring medium (be it vacuum, air or another liquid). Therefore, all of the molecules at the surface are subject to an inward force of molecular attraction which is balanced only by the liquid's resistance to compression, meaning there is no net inward force. However, there is a driving force to diminish the surface area. Therefore, the surface area of the liquid shrinks until it has the lowest surface area possible. That explains the spherical shapes of water droplets.
Another way to view it is that a molecule in contact with a neighbour is in a lower state of energy than if it weren't in contact with a neighbour. The interior molecules all have as many neighbours as they can possibly have. But the boundary molecules have fewer neighbours than interior molecules and are therefore in a higher state of energy. For the liquid to minimize its energy state, it must minimize its number of boundary molecules and must therefore minimize its surface area.^{[1]}^{[2]}
As a result of surface area minimization, a surface will assume the smoothest shape it can (mathematical proof that "smooth" shapes minimize surface area relies on use of the Euler–Lagrange equation). Since any curvature in the surface shape results in greater area, a higher energy will also result. Consequently the surface will push back against any curvature in much the same way as a ball pushed uphill will push back to minimize its gravitational potential energy.
The effects of surface tension can be seen with ordinary water:
Surface tension is visible in other common phenomena, especially when certain substances, surfactants, are used to decrease it:
Surface tension, represented by the symbol γ is defined as the force along a line of unit length, where the force is parallel to the surface but perpendicular to the line. One way to picture this is to imagine a flat soap film bounded on one side by a taut thread of length, L. The thread will be pulled toward the interior of the film by a force equal to 2L (the factor of 2 is because the soap film has two sides, hence two surfaces).^{[4]} Surface tension is therefore measured in forces per unit length. Its SI unit is newton per metre but the cgs unit of dyne per cm is also used.^{[5]} One dyn/cm corresponds to 0.001 N/m.
An equivalent definition, one that is useful in thermodynamics, is work done per unit area. As such, in order to increase the surface area of a mass of liquid by an amount, δA, a quantity of work, δA, is needed.^{[4]} This work is stored as potential energy. Consequently surface tension can be also measured in SI system as joules per square metre and in the cgs system as ergs per cm^{2}. Since mechanical systems try to find a state of minimum potential energy, a free droplet of liquid naturally assumes a spherical shape, which has the minimum surface area for a given volume.
The equivalence of measurement of energy per unit area to force per unit length can be proven by dimensional analysis.^{[4]}
Water striders use surface tension to walk on the surface of a pond—hydrophobic setae on the tarsi keep the insect afloat while an apical hydrophilic claw penetrates the surface, allowing it to "grip" the water. The surface of the water behaves like an elastic film: the insect's feet cause indentations in the water's surface, increasing its surface area. This represents an increase in potential energy through the surface tension of the water equal to the loss of potential energy of the insect's lowered center of mass.^{[6]}
If no force acts normal to a tensioned surface, the surface must remain flat. But if the pressure on one side of the surface differs from pressure on the other side, the pressure difference times surface area results in a normal force. In order for the surface tension forces to cancel the force due to pressure, the surface must be curved. The diagram shows how surface curvature of a tiny patch of surface leads to a net component of surface tension forces acting normal to the center of the patch. When all the forces are balanced, the resulting equation is known as the Young–Laplace equation:^{[1]}
where:
The quantity in parentheses on the right hand side is in fact (twice) the mean curvature of the surface (depending on normalisation).
Solutions to this equation determine the shape of water drops, puddles, menisci, soap bubbles, and all other shapes determined by surface tension (such as the shape of the impressions that a water strider's feet make on the surface of a pond).
The table below shows how the internal pressure of a water droplet increases with decreasing radius. For not very small drops the effect is subtle, but the pressure difference becomes enormous when the drop sizes approach the molecular size. (Of course, in the limit of a single molecule the concept becomes meaningless.)
Δp for water drops of different radii at STP  

Droplet radius  1 mm  0.1 mm  1 μm  10 nm 
Δp (atm)  0.0014  0.0144  1.436  143.6 
To find the shape of the minimal surface bounded by some arbitrary shaped frame using strictly mathematical means can be a daunting task. Yet by fashioning the frame out of wire and dipping it in soapsolution, an approximately minimal surface will appear in the resulting soapfilm within seconds. Without a single calculation, the soapfilm arrives at a solution to a complex minimization equation on its own.^{[4]}^{[7]}
The reason for this is that the pressure difference across a fluid interface is proportional to the mean curvature, as seen in the YoungLaplace equation. For an open soap film, the pressure difference is zero, hence the mean curvature is zero, and minimal surfaces have the property of zero mean curvature.
Since no liquid can exist in a perfect vacuum for very long, the surface of any liquid is an interface between that liquid and some other medium. The top surface of a pond, for example, is an interface between the pond water and the air. Surface tension, then, is not a property of the liquid alone, but a property of the liquid's interface with another medium. If a liquid is in a container, then besides the liquid/air interface at its top surface, there is also an interface between the liquid and the walls of the container. The surface tension between the liquid and air is usually different (greater than) its surface tension with the walls of a container. And where the two surfaces meet, their geometry must be such that all forces balance.^{[1]}^{[4]}

Where the two surfaces meet, they form a contact angle, , which is the angle the tangent to the surface makes with the solid surface. The diagram to the right shows two examples. Tension forces are shown for the liquidair interface, the liquidsolid interface, and the solidair interface. The example on the left is where the difference between the liquidsolid and solidair surface tension, , is less than the liquidair surface tension, , but is nevertheless positive, that is
In the diagram, both the vertical and horizontal forces must cancel exactly at the contact point. The horizontal component of is canceled by the adhesive force, .^{[4]}
The more telling balance of forces, though, is in the vertical direction. The vertical component of must exactly cancel the force, .^{[4]}
Liquid  Solid  Contact angle  

water 

0°  
ethanol  
diethyl ether  
carbon tetrachloride  
glycerol  
acetic acid  
water  paraffin wax  107°  
silver  90°  
methyl iodide  sodalime glass  29°  
lead glass  30°  
fused quartz  33°  
mercury  sodalime glass  140°  
Some liquidsolid contact angles^{[4]} 
Since the forces are in direct proportion to their respective surface tensions, we also have:^{[1]}
where
This means that although the difference between the liquidsolid and solidair surface tension, , is difficult to measure directly, it can be inferred from the easily measured contact angle, , if the liquidair surface tension, , is known.
This same relationship exists in the diagram on the right. But in this case we see that because the contact angle is less than 90°, the liquidsolid/solidair surface tension difference must be negative:
Observe that in the special case of a watersilver interface where the contact angle is equal to 90°, the liquidsolid/solidair surface tension difference is exactly zero.
Another special case is where the contact angle is exactly 180°. Water with specially prepared Teflon approaches this.^{[1]} Contact angle of 180° occurs when the liquidsolid surface tension is exactly equal to the liquidair surface tension.
Because surface tension manifests itself in various effects, it offers a number of paths to its measurement. Which method is optimal depends upon the nature of the liquid being measured, the conditions under which its tension is to be measured, and the stability of its surface when it is deformed.
An old style mercury barometer consists of a vertical glass tube about 1 cm in diameter partially filled with mercury, and with a vacuum (called Toricelli's vacuum) in the unfilled volume (see diagram to the right). Notice that the mercury level at the center of the tube is higher than at the edges, making the upper surface of the mercury domeshaped. The center of mass of the entire column of mercury would be slightly lower if the top surface of the mercury were flat over the entire crossection of the tube. But the domeshaped top gives slightly less surface area to the entire mass of mercury. Again the two effects combine to minimize the total potential energy. Such a surface shape is known as a convex meniscus.
The reason we consider the surface area of the entire mass of mercury, including the part of the surface that is in contact with the glass, is because mercury does not adhere at all to glass. So the surface tension of the mercury acts over its entire surface area, including where it is in contact with the glass. If instead of glass, the tube were made out of copper, the situation would be very different. Mercury aggressively adheres to copper. So in a copper tube, the level of mercury at the center of the tube will be lower rather than higher than at the edges (that is, it would be a concave meniscus). In a situation where the liquid adheres to the walls of its container, we consider the part of the fluid's surface area that is in contact with the container to have negative surface tension. The fluid then works to maximize the contact surface area. So in this case increasing the area in contact with the container decreases rather than increases the potential energy. That decrease is enough to compensate for the increased potential energy associated with lifting the fluid near the walls of the container.
If a tube is sufficiently narrow and the liquid adhesion to its walls is sufficiently strong, surface tension can draw liquid up the tube in a phenomenon known as capillary action. The height the column is lifted to is given by:^{[4]}
where
Pouring mercury onto a horizontal flat sheet of glass results in a puddle that has a perceptible thickness. (Do not try this except under a fume hood. Mercury vapor is a toxic hazard.) The puddle will spread out only to the point where it is a little under half a centimeter thick, and no thinner. Again this is due to the action of mercury's strong surface tension. The liquid mass flattens out because that brings as much of the mercury to as low a level as possible. But the surface tension, at the same time, is acting to reduce the total surface area. The result is the compromise of a puddle of a nearly fixed thickness.
The same surface tension demonstration can be done with water, but only on a surface made of a substance that the water does not adhere to. Wax is such a substance. Water poured onto a smooth, flat, horizontal wax surface, say a waxed sheet of glass, will behave similarly to the mercury poured onto glass.
The thickness of a puddle of liquid on a surface whose contact angle is 180° is given by:^{[1]}
where
is the depth of the puddle in centimeters or meters. 
is the surface tension of the liquid in dynes per centimeter or newtons per meter. 
is the acceleration due to gravity and is equal to 980 cm/s^{2} or 9.8 m/s^{2} 
is the density of the liquid in grams per cubic centimeter or kilograms per cubic meter 
In reality, the thicknesses of the puddles will be slightly less than what is predicted by the above formula because very few surfaces have a contact angle of 180° with any liquid. When the contact angle is less than 180°, the thickness is given by:^{[1]}
For mercury on glass, , , and , which gives . For water on paraffin at 25 °C, , , and which gives .
The formula also predicts that when the contact angle is 0°, the liquid will spread out into a microthin layer over the surface. Such a surface is said to be fully wettable by the liquid.
In day to day life we all observe that a stream of water emerging from a faucet will break up into droplets, no matter how smoothly the stream is emitted from the faucet. This is due to a phenomenon called the Plateau–Rayleigh instability,^{[1]} which is entirely a consequence of the effects of surface tension.
The explanation of this instability begins with the existence of tiny perturbations in the stream. These are always present, no matter how smooth the stream is. If the perturbations are resolved into sinusoidal components, we find that some components grow with time while others decay with time. Among those that grow with time, some grow at faster rates than others. Whether a component decays or grows, and how fast it grows is entirely a function of its wave number (a measure of how many peaks and troughs per centimeter) and the radius of the original cylindrical stream.
As stated above, the mechanical work needed to increase a surface is . Hence at constant temperature and pressure, surface tension equals Gibbs free energy per surface area:^{[1]}
where is Gibbs free energy and is the area.
Thermodynamics requires that all spontaneous changes of state are accompanied by a decrease in Gibbs free energy.
From this it is easy to understand why decreasing the surface area of a mass of liquid is always spontaneous (), provided it is not coupled to any other energy changes. It follows that in order to increase surface area, a certain amount of energy must be added.
Gibbs free energy is defined by the equation,^{[13]} , where is enthalpy and is entropy. Based upon this and the fact that surface tension is Gibbs free energy per unit area, it is possible to obtain the following expression for entropy per unit area:
Kelvin's Equation for surfaces arises by rearranging the previous equations. It states that surface enthalpy or surface energy (different from surface free energy) depends both on surface tension and its derivative with temperature at constant pressure by the relationship.^{[14]}
The pressure inside an ideal (one surface) soap bubble can be derived from thermodynamic free energy considerations. At constant temperature and particle number, dT = dN = 0, the differential Helmholtz free energy is given by
where P is the difference in pressure inside and outside of the bubble, and γ is the surface tension. In equilbrium, dF = 0, and so,
For a spherical bubble, the volume and surface area are given simply by
and
Substituting these relations into the previous expression, we find
which is equivalent to the YoungLaplace equation when R_{x} = R_{y}. For real soap bubbles, the pressure is doubled due to the presence of two interfaces, one inside and one outside.
Surface tension is dependent on temperature. For that reason, when a value is given for the surface tension of an interface, temperature must be explicitly stated. The general trend is that surface tension decreases with the increase of temperature, reaching a value of 0 at the critical temperature. For further details see Eötvös rule. There are only empirical equations to relate surface tension and temperature:
Here V is the molar volume of that substance, T_{C} is the critical temperature and k is a constant valid for almost all substances.^{[8]} A typical value is k = 2.1 x 10^{−7} [J K^{−1} mol^{2/3}] ^{[8]}^{[15]}. For water one can further use V = 18 ml/mol and T_{C} = 374 °C.
A variant on Eötvös is described by Ramay and Shields:^{[13]}
where the temperature offset of 6 kelvins provides the formula with a better fit to reality at lower temperatures.
is a constant for each liquid and n is an empirical factor, whose value is 11/9 for organic liquids. This equation was also proposed by van der Waals, who further proposed that could be given by the expression, , where is a universal constant for all liquids, and is the critical pressure of the liquid (although later experiments found to vary to some degree from one liquid to another).^{[14]}
Both GuggenheimKatayama and Eötvös take into account the fact that surface tension reaches 0 at the critical temperature, whereas Ramay and Shields fails to match reality at this endpoint.
Solutes can have different effects on surface tension depending on their structure:
What complicates the effect is that a solute can exist in a different concentration at the surface of a solvent than in its bulk. This difference varies from one solute/solvent combination to another.
Gibbs isotherm states that:^{[13]}
Certain assumptions are taken in its deduction, therefore Gibbs isotherm can only be applied to ideal (very dilute) solutions with two components.
The ClausiusClapeyron relation leads to another equation also attributed to Kelvin. It explains why, because of surface tension, the vapor pressure for small droplets of liquid in suspension is greater than standard vapor pressure of that same liquid when the interface is flat. That is to say that when a liquid is forming small droplets, the equilibrium concentration of its vapor in its surroundings is greater. This arises because the pressure inside the droplet is greater than outside.^{[13]}
r_{k} is the Kelvin radius, the radius of the droplets.
The effect explains supersaturation of vapors. In the absence of nucleation sites, tiny droplets must form before they can evolve into larger droplets. This requires a vapor pressure many times the vapor pressure at the phase transition point.^{[13]}
This equation is also used in catalyst chemistry to assess mesoporosity for solids.^{[16]}
The effect can be viewed in terms of the average number of molecular neighbors of surface molecules (see diagram).
The table shows some calculated values of this effect for water at different drop sizes:
P/P_{0} for water drops of different radii at STP^{[14]}  

Droplet radius (nm)  1000  100  10  1 
P/P_{0}  1.001  1.011  1.114  2.95 
The effect becomes clear for very small drop sizes, as a drop of 1 nm radius has about 100 molecules inside, which is a quantity small enough to require a quantum mechanics analysis.
Liquid  Temperature °C  Surface tension, γ 

Acetic acid  20  27.6 
Acetic acid (40.1%) + Water  30  40.68 
Acetic acid (10.0%) + Water  30  54.56 
Acetone  20  23.7 
Diethyl ether  20  17.0 
Ethanol  20  22.27 
Ethanol (40%) + Water  25  29.63 
Ethanol (11.1%) + Water  25  46.03 
Glycerol  20  63 
nHexane  20  18.4 
Hydrochloric acid 17.7M aqueous solution  20  65.95 
Isopropanol  20  21.7 
Mercury  15  487 
Methanol  20  22.6 
nOctane  20  21.8 
Sodium chloride 6.0M aqueous solution  20  82.55 
Sucrose (55%) + water  20  76.45 
Water  0  75.64 
Water  25  71.97 
Water  50  67.91 
Water  100  58.85 
Breakup of a moving sheet of water bouncing off of a spoon. 
Photo of flowing water adhering to a hand. Surface tension creates the sheet of water between the flow and the hand. 
Surface tension prevents a coin from sinking: the coin is indisputably denser than water, so it cannot be floating due to buoyancy alone. 

A daisy. The entirety of the flower lies below the level of the (undisturbed) free surface. The water rises smoothly around its edge. Surface tension prevents water filling the air between the petals and possibly submerging the flower. 
Photo showing the "tears of wine" phenomenon, which is induced by a combination of surface tension modification of water by ethanol together with ethanol evaporating faster than water. 
A metal paper clip floats on water. Several can usually be carefully added without overflow of water. 
An aluminum coin floats on the surface of the water at 10°C. Any extra weight would drop the coin to the bottom. 

