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Surface Energy

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Last updated date: 22nd Jul 2024
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What is Surface Energy?

Surface energy is the work done on the outer area of a material where the atoms do not have a bond with another atom in their immediate neighborhood. It is imperative that the atoms in any material are bonded with other atoms. This is because the bulk of the unchanged physical aspect of the material is entirely surrounded by bonded atoms. However, when the material is nearing the end and reaching the surface, the bonds of the atom split open, and there are no bonds on the outer surface of the material. This is known as surface energy. Higher surface energy means that the atoms have a stronger drive for the reconnection of bonds. 

Whenever a spring is stretched, we say that some work is done on it and it is stored in the form of Potential energy, known as Elastic potential energy. We can say if the body is in its undeformed state, there will be no potential energy. 

Similarly, when we talk about free surfaces of the liquid, as we know the free surfaces of liquids are considered to be stretched membranes, then the surface will store some potential energy due to stretched surface and since it’s only at the surface of the liquid, it is termed as Surface energy or Surface free energy.

Surface Free Energy

  • Surface energy is the potential energy of the liquid molecules that will help the molecules to remain at the surface of the liquid. 

  • All the molecules at the surface try to reach the bottom layer, which will decrease the surface energy. Surface energy is the amount of work done to increase the surface area of the liquid surface. 

  • Mathematically, the surface energy is the work done per unit area of the liquid surface.

⇒ Surface energy = \[\frac{\text{Work done}}{\text{Area}}\] Joules/m\[^{2}\]

  • The SI unit of surface energy is Joules/m2 or Newton/metre(N/m).

  • If the surface is less, then the liquid surface will exert high surface energy (Ex: metals, oxides, ceramics). Similarly, if the surface area is more, then the surface will exert low surface energy (Ex: Plastics, Rubbers, etc.).

  • The materials having low surface energy are classified as low surface energy materials.

Relation Between Surface Tension and Surface Energy

Let us derive a relation between the surface tension and surface energy. Now, consider a rectangular wireframe with a slider attached to it as shown in the figure below. The rectangular wireframe is dipped in the soap water that will result in soap film due to the surface tension.

Due to surface tension, the soap film will exert force on the slider. Then, the net force on the slider due to surface tension is given by:

⇒ F = 2Tl ………..(1),


T - Surface Tension of the soap film

l -  Length of the slider

(The multiplicative factor 2 is used, as there are two surfaces of the slider, and the force exerted on both surfaces slide due to surface tension.)

For slowly moving the slider outwards, the external force acting on it will be

For slowly moving the slider outwards, the external force acting on it will be,

⇒ F\[_{ext}\] = 2Tl……….(2)


T - Surface Tension of the soap film

l -  Length of the slider

Now, let us displace the slider by Δx distance outwards, then there will be some work done on it. 


(Image will be Uploaded Soon)


Whatever work is done to move the slider will be stored in the form of its potential energy. Therefore, the work done in displacing the slider is given by:

⇒ dW = F\[_{ext}\] . Δx

⇒ ΔU = dW = 2Tl . Δx ………(3)


ΔU - Increase in the surface energy

On rearranging the above expression,

⇒ ΔU = T . ΔS ………….(4)


ΔS - Increase in surface area of the film

Therefore, the relation between surface tension and surface energy is given by the following expression:

⇒ T = \[\frac{\Delta U}{\Delta S}\] ……….(5)

Equation (5) gives the relation between surface tension and surface energy. 


1) A Film of water is formed between two parallel wires each of length 20 cm and the separation between them is 1 cm. Calculate the work required to increase their surface area by 2 mm. (Surface tension of water is 72 х 10⁻³ N/m.)

Solution: Before starting the solution of the given example, let us first visualise the given data.

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It is given that

The length of the wire = 20 cm

The separation between the wires = 1 cm = 10⁻² m 

The displacement due to the external force ∆x = 2 mm = 2 х 10⁻³ m

The surface tension of water = T = 72 х 10⁻³ N/m

Now, we know that the relation between surface tension and surface energy (work done),

⇒ ∆U = T.∆S …..(1),


⇒ ∆S = 2l∆x (Increase in surface area of the film)

⇒ ∆S = 2 х 20 х 2 х 10⁻³ = 80 х 10⁻³m² …….(2)

Substituting equation (2) in (1),

⇒ ∆U = (72 х 10⁻³) . (80 х 10⁻³) = 5.76 х 10⁻³ J

⇒ ∆U = 5.76 mJ

Therefore, 5.76 mJ of work is done to increase the surface area by 2 mm.

Did You Know?

The surface tension of every material is different. Thus, the surface energy of the materials will also be varying from one material to another. The surface energy of liquid will be different from that of the surface energy of metals. The surface energy of water will be depending upon the angle of contact.

The surface energy of few materials is as listed below:


Surface Energy (mJ/m2)











FAQs on Surface Energy

1. What is the Dimensional Formula of Surface Energy?

The dimensional formula for surface energy is MT-2.

2. What is Specific Surface Energy?

Specific surface energy is the increase in the free energy when surface area increases by unit area.

3. What is the best method of studying surface methods? 

Some of the essential tips used for studying surface energy are listed hereunder:

  • Use Practical Methods: The best way to solve surface energy problems is using suitable tools and instruments for the solutions. This makes understanding the concept more manageable and helps the student master the topic.

  • Labelling Diagrams: This is very useful, especially for subjects like chemistry. Visual images help the brain grasp more than words can. 

  • Practice with the Correct Resources: Students can use the resource study material from our official website. They are free to download and use. 

4. What is an example of surface energy?

Surface energy can be easily explained by the example of bread. A bread is physically and chemically considered a material. The bulk or the inside of the material is packed with atoms that are bonded with each other. Other examples of materials around which surface energy takes place are metal and polythenes. Metals have higher surface energy as the material is more difficult to break, therefore creating more surface energy. It is calculated in the order of magnitude; likewise, polythenes have lesser surface energy. 

5. What is the main point to remember to write about surface energy? 

Surface energy is defined by the excess energy at the surface compared to the bulk of the material. So, in bulk, we have all these nearest neighbors in three directions, which are filled with and connected to other atoms with the help of bonds, but at the surface, we have all this free energy due to lack of atoms on the surface, away from the material compared to the bulk. This is because the atoms in the material get weak without the bonds, so they try to make energy at the surface, which can be connected to them. So, this work done by the atoms is called surface energy. 

6. Where do I study surface energy? 

The student can find many enriching answer keys which can be easily downloaded in PDF format, which are totally free of cost. Answer keys, revision notes, question banks, practical sample questions, theoretical tactical questions, worksheets, and practice questions are some of the resources found on our website. With these resources, the student can easily understand the concept of surface energy and gain mastery over it by practicing, resulting in higher marks in examinations, whether in the board quizzes or class tests. 

7. What are the uses of surface energy? 

The surface energy is the most commonly measured property by inverse GC. You can buy things measuring other properties like heat absorption and surface areas; you can measure solubility parameters. This is based on the Fowkes principle and is well established in inverse gas chromatography, contact angle, and other surface energy techniques. This is determined by using a series of nonpolar molecules of straight-chain alkanes. The interaction of these nonpolar molecules will then give the nonpolar or dispersive component of the surface energy.