What is Capillary Action and How Does it Work?

Have you ever wondered how plants are able to transport water from their roots to their leaves, defying gravity? Or perhaps you’ve observed the way ink spreads through a paper towel when it comes into contact with it. These phenomena can be explained by a remarkable process known as capillary action. Capillary action plays a vital role in various natural and man-made systems, and understanding its mechanics can shed light on several everyday occurrences.

Capillary action is a fascinating phenomenon that occurs when liquids, such as water, move through narrow spaces, against gravity, without the assistance of external forces like pumps or gravity. It is named after the tiny tubes known as capillaries, which are responsible for its observation. Capillary action plays a crucial role in various natural processes and has practical applications in fields such as biology, chemistry, and engineering. In this article, we will delve into the intricacies of capillary action and explore how it works.

What is Capillary Action?

Capillary action, also called capillarity, is the capacity of a liquid to move upward against gravity in confined areas like tubes, pipes, or porous materials. This occurs because of the cohesive and adhesive forces working together. Capillarity gets its name from capillaries, which are small blood vessels in the human body that demonstrate similar behavior. Cohesion between liquid molecules causes them to pull on one another, while adhesion attracts the liquid to the surface of the confined space. These combined forces enable the liquid to rise against gravity. Capillary action is a vital phenomenon found in nature and has practical applications in various fields, from plant biology to engineering.

The term “capillary” is derived from the Latin word “capillaris,” meaning hair-like, which describes the thinness of the tubes where this phenomenon is commonly observed. Capillary tubes can be found in various materials such as glass, paper, and porous substances. The interaction between the liquid and the tube’s surface creates a unique balance of forces, leading to the rise or flow of the liquid.

Mechanisms of Capillary Action

Capillary action is governed by two fundamental forces: cohesive forces and adhesive forces.

Cohesive Forces: 

Cohesion refers to the attraction between molecules of the same substance. In a liquid, these forces create a strong bond, allowing the liquid molecules to stick together. Cohesive forces tend to pull the liquid molecules inward, minimizing the surface area exposed to the air.

Adhesive Forces: 

Adhesion refers to the attraction between molecules of different substances. When a liquid comes into contact with a solid surface, adhesive forces cause the liquid to spread out, forming a concave or convex meniscus. The strength of the adhesive forces determines the degree to which the liquid rises or falls in the capillary tube.

The interplay between cohesive and adhesive forces determines the direction and magnitude of capillary action. If the adhesive forces are stronger than the cohesive forces, the liquid will rise in the capillary tube, displaying a concave meniscus. Conversely, if the cohesive forces are stronger, the liquid will retract and form a convex meniscus.

How Does Capillary Action Work?

To understand how capillary action works, let’s consider the example of water in a narrow glass tube or a plant’s xylem vessels. Water molecules are cohesive, meaning they tend to stick to each other due to hydrogen bonding. As a result, when water enters a narrow space like a tube or a plant’s vascular system, the cohesive forces between the water molecules cause them to pull on each other.

Simultaneously, adhesive forces come into play. Water molecules are attracted to the molecules present in the walls of the tube or the plant’s vascular tissues. The adhesive forces between water and these surfaces create an upward pull, opposing the force of gravity. This adhesion helps to counterbalance the weight of the water and enables it to rise against gravity.

The combination of cohesive and adhesive forces results in a meniscus, which is a curved surface formed by the liquid in contact with a solid. In a narrow tube, the water molecules at the edges experience stronger adhesive forces than those in the center, causing the liquid to rise. The narrower the tube, the higher the water can climb due to the increased capillary pressure.

The height to which a liquid can rise through capillary action depends on several factors, including the properties of the liquid and the material through which it is flowing, as well as the diameter of the tube or pores. This phenomenon can be explained by the Young-Laplace equation, which describes the relationship between capillary pressure, liquid surface tension, and the radius of the tube or pore.

Capillary action has numerous applications in various fields. In plants, it plays a crucial role in the transport of water and nutrients from the roots to the leaves, ensuring their survival. It is also involved in the movement of water through soils, allowing plants to access groundwater. In addition, capillary action is essential in the functioning of wicks in candles, the absorption of liquids by paper towels, the operation of ink pens, and even in medical diagnostic tests like the home pregnancy test.

Understanding the mechanics of capillary action has paved the way for advancements in several scientific and technological fields. Scientists and engineers have leveraged this phenomenon to develop innovative solutions, ranging from microfluidics and lab-on-a-chip devices to fuel cells and inkjet printing.

Factors Influencing Capillary Action

Several factors influence the effectiveness of capillary action:

Tube Diameter: 

The narrower the capillary tube, the greater the capillary action. This is because a smaller diameter results in a larger ratio of the liquid’s surface area to its volume, leading to stronger adhesive forces and increased capillary rise.

Surface Tension: 

Surface tension is the cohesive force that acts at the surface of a liquid. Higher surface tension enhances capillary action by strengthening the cohesive forces within the liquid. For example, water, with its relatively high surface tension, exhibits significant capillary action.

Liquid Properties: 

The nature of the liquid itself affects capillary action. Liquids with low viscosity (resistance to flow) tend to exhibit more pronounced capillary rise. Similarly, liquids with high surface energy or polar characteristics, such as water, exhibit stronger adhesive forces, promoting capillary action.


Gravity opposes capillary action, exerting a downward force on the liquid. As a result, the height to which the liquid rises in a capillary tube is limited by the balance between capillary forces and gravitational forces. In microscale systems or when dealing with highly viscous liquids, gravity’s impact becomes negligible.


Capillary action is a remarkable phenomenon that allows liquids to move through narrow spaces against gravity, thanks to the combined forces of adhesion and cohesion. It plays a vital role in nature, allowing plants to transport water and nutrients and assisting in various scientific and technological applications. Understanding capillary action and its underlying principles has paved the way for advancements in fields ranging from biology to engineering. As we continue to explore and harness the power of capillary action, new discoveries and innovations are sure to emerge, further expanding our understanding of this remarkable phenomenon.