Variations on the Coffee Ring Home Lab Experiment


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Anyone who washes a cup after coffee dried in it has seen a “coffee ring”. Is the ring caused by the cup’s convex bottom? Several experiments get to the bottom of this phenomenon.

"Coffee Bean in a Coffee Ring" by matt.davis

Coffee Bean in a Coffee Ring: Image by matt.davis

Introducing the Coffee Ring Home Lab Experiment

This is a simple lab experiment, both safe and interesting for anyone. More accurately, it is an open-ended set of tests that suitable for individuals or whole families.

The basic test is to let a small puddle of coffee dry on a flat surface, such as a plate. This will leave a darker ring around the outside, with a much lighter centre.

The set of experiments is to determine if all liquids behave that way, or is there something magical about coffee?

The Author’s Flirtation with Coffee Rings

Each image shows regular coffee in the upper left, tea in the upper right, soya sauce in the lower right, and instant decaffeinated coffee in the lower left.

The same source was used for each plate. The “soap” plate had just a touch of well-diluted dish soap added to each sample.

Lab Equipment for the Coffee Ring Home Experiment

"Coffee Ring Experiment Lab Equipment" by Mike DeHaan

Coffee Ring Experiment Lab Equipment: Image by Mike DeHaan

The above image shows the all the equipment except for the pots of sample liquids. The spoon that I used to dribble sample liquids is resting inside the glass that holds the dilute soapy water.

The plate with soap is on the left; the soap bubbles are just visible on those liquids.

These images were taken just as the experiment started; it took another day before every sample had dried thoroughly.

The main piece of lab equipment is a plate. Having several identical plates allows for easy comparison of different conditions. The control condition should be a drop of clean water.

Use your kitchen for this home lab experiment. If you want to leave the plate elsewhere, it is easier to bring the liquids to that room, rather than carry a wet plate very far.

The experiment also requires a flat surface to leave the plate, possibly for several days, while the liquid dries. If you have pets or small children, be sure not to use poisonous or noxious substances!

What can be Tested?

What can’t be tested?

"Drying Rings without Soap" by Mike DeHaan

Drying Rings without Soap: Image by Mike DeHaan

The range of water-based liquids includes beverages such as coffee, tea, milk, soft drinks or energy drinks. You could dissolve sugars (white or brown sugar, honey, or molasses) or salt. Try a suspension of baking soda or baking powder or flour. The images show that soya sauce behaves a bit differently than others.

Take an adventure into acidity with lemon juice versus vinegar; try dissolving something into those liquids, too. Waste a few drops of beer, wine or spirits; again, try them “neat” or dissolve something into them.

"Dried Rings without Soap" by Mike DeHaan

Dried Rings without Soap: Image by Mike DeHaan

Finally, consider using cooking oil to dissolve these other substances. Are rings left behind?

"Dried Soya Ring without Soap" by Mike DeHaan

Dried Soya Ring without Soap: Image by Mike DeHaan

Variations on the Theme

"Drying Rings with Soap" by Mike DeHaan

Drying Rings with Soap: Image by Mike DeHaan

Once you have made some rings, you can try to avoid the effect by adding a touch of dish soap or other surfactant. See whether that makes a difference to the ring effect.

"Close-Up of Dried Soya Ring with Soap" by Mike DeHaan

Close-Up of Dried Soya Ring with Soap: Image by Mike DeHaan

You could also try coating a plate with dish soap before adding the coffee. If you have a plain sheet of glass and a water repellant, such as for keeping rain off your car’s windshield, try that too.

Cutting Edge Science Simply Rolls Along

Recent cutting-edge research found that pencil-shaped particles which are very elongated, or uniformly round particles, can avoid the coffee-ring effect.

Does grinding the grains of instant coffee with a rolling pin make a difference? Or do you need adjust extremely fine particles at a microscopic level?

Avoid these Hazards

As noted above, please do not leave poisons out to dry; nor anything that gives off noxious vapours. This should exclude petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel fuel, or any other liquids for your automobile.

If using your good china, remember that paint will stick rather than wash off. Don’t use drain cleaner or other harsh cleaning solutions.

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