A substance is referred to as a wetting agent if it lowers the surface tension of a liquid and thus allows it to spread more easily.
There are two types of intermolecular forces:
Wetting agents are substances that reduce the surface tension of water to allow it to spread drops onto a surface, increasing the spreading abilities of a liquid. Lowering the surface tension lowers the energy required to spread drops onto a film, thus weakening the cohesive properties of the liquid and strengthening its adhesive properties. One example of how wetting agents work is in the formation of micelles. Micelles consist of hydrophilic heads forming an outer layer around lipophilic tails. When in water, the micelles' tails can surround an oil droplet while the heads are attracted to the water.
Figure 1: An example diagram of a micelle. The green heads are hydrophilic and are thus attracted to water. The brown tails are lipophilic and thus attracted to fats and oils.
Dish soap is a great example of a wetting agent. With all the food oils and such on the plate cohesive forces make it difficult for the water to spread and clean the plate. The soap dissolves all theses unwanted particles, exposing a clean surface. The soap also lowers the surface tension of water, allowing it to spread evenly across the entire surface.
Types of Wetting Agents
There are four main types of wetting agents: anionic, cationic, amphoteric, and nonionic.
How to Tell if a Liquid Contains a Wetting Agent
One method of knowing whether or not a liquid has a wetting agent in it is to spread the liquid on a surface that is coated in grease. If the liquid does not contain a wetting agent, the its cohesive forces would overpower adhesive forces, causing the liquid to for droplets on the surface. If the liquid does contain a wetting agent, the grease would be dissolved and the surface tension of the liquid would be lowered, causing the adhesive forces to overpower the cohesive forces. This would result in the liquid spreading evenly along the surface.
Another method is to place the liquid in a test tube and observe the liquid's meniscus. If the liquid contains a wetting agent, its adhesive forces are stronger than cohesive forces, which means the liquid molecules are more inclined to stick to the surface than other liquid molecules. This results in a concave meniscus. If the liquid does not contain a wetting agent and is naturally very cohesive, like mercury, it forms a convex meniscus. This is caused by the fact the the molecules of the liquid have a stronger attraction to each other than to the surface of the test tube.
Uses for Wetting Agents
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