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How paper towel absorbs water

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How paper towels absorb water: It is a complex scientific process!

Paper towels: Can you live without them? Most would say, 'No.'

Every time you turn around, you are grabbing a paper towel to clean up one household mess or another. We're certainly glad these towels are so absorbent (and make life easier for us) but many of us do not understand how paper towel absorbs water.

In scientific terms, absorption is the reception, taking in or incorporation of liquids, gases, heat or light.


The paper consists of cellulose fibers. These fibers, a part of wood, cotton and other plants, are big molecules (polymers), containing small, linked-together molecules. Cellulose molecules are in fact sugar molecules. When the paper gets wet, the water molecules grip the sugar cellulose fibers.

If you dip a corner of the towel into water, the water spread away from the corn and moves upward.This occurs because of capillary action.

Capillary action

Capillary action is sometimes referred to as wicking action or surface tension. These terms refer to the small amount of elasticity that physically happens between molecules of water, which holds them together. There is a force magnetism between the water and the fibers in the paper.

Capillary action is defined as movement of water within the spaces of porous material as a result of forces of cohesion, adhesion and surface tension. It takes place when water becomes sticky due to the forces of cohesion.

H2o molecules prefer staying close together -- this is cohesion -- and water moves upward because water adheres (adhesion) to the vessel. The surface tension keeps the surface in one piece. 

Capillary action takes place when adherence to the surface is more potent than the cohesive forces that are occurring between the liquid molecules.

The towel is comparable to a sponge and has similar absorption strength. Water is drawn into the open spaces found between the fibers in the towel. Every part of the paper's surface contains a small bubble of surface tension. The bubbles form when the paper comes into contact with liquid.

Liquid is absorbed and kept in one of these small spaces, separate from the rest of the absorbed liquid. Due to the design, the liquid bubbles remain intact and are pulled upward as a result of intermolecular attraction, which is quite strong and overpowers the small spaces (called pores and pockets) that contain very little water. The attraction is greater than the gravitational pull on the liquid. Water stops rising when the upward attraction is equal to the weight of the water in the towel.

Water is two atoms of hydrogen, which are attached to an oxygen atom. The oxygen end has a puny negative charge and the hydrogen end has a feeble positive charge. The same is true for cellulose fibers that have linked-up hydrogen and oxygen atoms on the outside edges of their sugar molecules. The positive end of the water molecule is attracted to the sugar molecule's negative part, because opposites attract.

When wringing out the paper, water comes out because wringing breaks the surface tension. When the spaces are compressed, this makes liquid molecules come together. They are weighted down by gravity.

Some consumers are trying to cut back on their use of paper products, including towels. One way to achieve this is to use "pick a size' towels. They are perforated into 1/3 of the normal size. Tear off as little or as much as you need, depending on the task at hand. This way you don't waste an an entire sheet when just a little bit was needed.

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