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How can water be absorbed into a paper towel such that it continues to be absorbed up into the material against the force of gravity? What property of paper towels/water causes this? I can understand that cohesive forces cause water molecules to follow other water molecules, but why do the molecules begin this climb in the first place?

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  • $\begingroup$ surface tension... $\endgroup$ – Jon Custer Aug 17 '15 at 22:32
  • $\begingroup$ What are you even asking about? Why is cellulose hydrophilic? $\endgroup$ – Mithoron Aug 17 '15 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks to Jon Custer, I think I found the explanation. It's called capillary action, and it's a property of water that allows it to travel against gravity in porous substances like paper. In short it's due to the properties of both paper and water. $\endgroup$ – ringo Aug 17 '15 at 22:38
  • $\begingroup$ Yep, you found it. $\endgroup$ – hBy2Py Aug 17 '15 at 22:44
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This is simply an example of capillary action expanded to a sheet of many tiny capillaries. In a narrow glass tube immersed in water, water will climb the inside of the tube to a level higher than that of the water outside because it is energetically favourable for the water to wet the surface due to adhesive forces and the cohesive forces of the water pull the bulk of the water up with the contact line of the water and the glass. Glass and water have strong adhesive forces as glass has many silicate groups which can interact with water through hydrogen bonding and other polar interactions. As the liquid rises, the volume of water above the surrounding liquid increases, thus increasing the weight of the column. When the weight of the column equals the adhesive and cohesive forces drawing the water upwards, the system is at equilibrium and the water will rise no further.

This can be calculated from: $$h = \frac{\gamma\cos\theta}{\rho gr}$$ where h is the height of the column, $\gamma$ is the liquid-air surface tension, $\theta$ is the equilibrium contact angle between the glass and the water, $\rho$ is the density of water, g is the acceleration due to gravity, and r is the radius of the tube. As you can see, increasing the surface tension (which comes from water's cohesive forces) or decreasing the contact angle (the lower the contact angle, the stronger the adhesive forces between liquid and surface) will increase the height the column will reach, and conversely a denser liquid or larger tube will decrease the height (greater increase in weight for a given rise).

I won't do the whole calculation but for a 1 mm radius glass tube with water ($\theta \approx 50°$, $\gamma = 72\ \mathrm{mN/m}$), the equilibrium height is 4.7 mm. Now, if we shrink the tube much further to approximate something like a pore in a piece of paper towel, we can make the liquid go much further. (it's obviously not perfectly cylindrical, but close enough for illustration and the cellulose-water contact angle seems to be close enough to glass' as cellulose's abundance of hydroxyl groups is similarly adhesive to water) At a diameter of 10 µm, we get a height of 47 cm.

When we expand this concept to a large sheet of interconnected pores, we find that capillary action can draw a relatively large volume of water across considerable distances, which in addition to being great for cleaning up household spills, opens the possibility of using paper as a substrate for analytical devices that don't need pumps, including the lateral flow assay (most commonly seen as the pregnancy test stick) and paper microfluidic devices.

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