bouncing droplets

Pour over science

floating, bouncing drops
How do you stabilise droplets of liquid water (or coffee) on a bath of water? And how long can you keep them on the surface?

On the 11th June, 2019 that is, in just under two weeks, we are going to try something exciting. Amoret Coffee in Notting Hill has offered to host the first ever “Bean Thinking’s evening of coffee & science”.

The idea behind what will (hopefully) become a series of evenings is to host a space for discussion and observation, exploring the physics within a coffee cup. On the 11th, we’ll be looking particularly at the phenomenon of “walking” droplets of coffee. These droplets can move across the surface of a cup of coffee and exist for many minutes (even days) if the conditions are right. And the conditions are fairly easy to create: we’ll be creating several such ‘walkers’ in the spacious upstairs area of Amoret’s Notting Hill branch that people can play with.

You can see such drops in your coffee in the morning. But what connects them to an early idea in quantum mechanics?

Although it takes the creation of certain conditions to achieve long-lasting droplets, you can often see them as you prepare a V60 pour over or even when dragging your (single-use) take-away cup over the surface of a table to create resonances on the surface of the cup. They crop up quite frequently, but why are they there at all and why do some last longer than others?

In addition to exploring these questions experimentally, we’ll also be discussing why these droplets sometimes ‘walk’ across the surface of the coffee and how this relates to an early interpretation of the phenomenon of wave-particle duality in quantum physics. How does something that you can sometimes see while brewing your coffee in the morning relate to the idea that fundamental particles such as the electron behave both as particle and wave? And what does this mean anyway?

It is hoped that future evenings will cover other topics such as climate change and coffee stains, I also hope that we will be lucky enough to have some of the coffee farmers that Amoret has direct-trade relationships with in order to explore these connections further. But, that is in the future, this time we are sticking with the fundamentals!

coffee at Watch House
There’s a lot of physics in a coffee. What do you see? Find out more at Amoret Coffee, 11th June 2019 or sign up to our events list.

So, if you are in London on the 11th June and would like to explore some physics in your coffee (or some coffee with your physics), please do come along to Amoret, from 5pm, for an evening of conversation and poring over science. We will be keeping people informed of plans for the evening (and for future evenings) via our events mailing list which you can sign up to here, or you can follow our progress on our Facebook events page here. Meanwhile, it would be helpful for planning reasons if you could let us know if you are coming either by signing up on Facebook or by emailing us. Looking forward to meeting some of you on the 11th.

(Im)perfect reflections on coffee

science in a V60

Have you noticed droplets like these dancing on your drip-brewed coffee?

With the recent coffees from Hundred House and Quarter Horse, there have been many opportunities to observe the coffee brewing in the V60 in the mornings. The steam rising from the filter paper, the different ways different coffees bloom and out-gas, the droplets that skim the surface of the coffee and bounce off the walls of the jug and then, of course, the many different effects with light. Watching the dancing droplets (an explanation of why they may dance is here), it is perhaps not immediately obvious that you could form a connection between these, the light reflections and an insight into something you may have noticed while passing through customs. And yet the connection is definitely there.

The connection is formed through a technique called Raman spectroscopy. Named after Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (1888-1970) who discovered the Raman effect in 1928. As the ‘spectroscopy’ part of the name suggests, it is a technique that offers a way to identify different chemicals, or components, in a substance. For coffee it has been used both as a non-destructive technique to determine the kahweol content of coffee beans and hence help as a test for identifying rogue robusta in arabica beans and as a way of analysing the brewed coffee. But what is it, how does watching a brewing V60 help to understand it and why would you want to know about Raman spectroscopy while travelling through an airport?

beauty in a coffee, coffee beauty

A collection of bubbles on the side of the coffee. What happens when one of the dancing droplets collides with a group of bubbles?

Generally, it helps to begin with coffee and the link is the way in which the droplets bounce off the side of the jug. Brew a coffee and watch them (if you are a non-coffee drinker, you could try dripping hot water through a filter paper into a jug). When one of these droplets hits the wall of the V60 container, it generally bounces back with a trajectory expected for an elastic collision. Given the relative masses of the droplet and the jug, the speed of the reflected droplet is essentially unchanged (even if its direction is reversed). This is similar to what we would normally expect for light. We are used to considering light as waves but because of the wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics it is equally valid to consider light as a stream of particles called photons. As the photons hit a surface and are reflected off, they recoil with the same energy that they initially had, just like the droplets in the coffee. But now look more closely at the dancing droplets. Normally they hit the walls and not each other but just occasionally, they can hit either another droplet or a group of bubbles that have formed on the coffee surface. In these cases, rather than get reflected as before, the droplets transfer some of their energy to the collection of bubbles causing them to move and to wobble. And when the droplet is reflected back, it has a noticeably slower speed (and so we could say a lower kinetic energy) than when it initially danced into its collision. Where is the analogue with light?

When we think about a coffee bean, we probably think about something that is about 1cm oval, brown and quite solid. But if we zoom in, we find that it is made up of a collection of atoms bound together in molecules or, if we are thinking about a solid like salt, in a crystal structure. These atoms act as if they are balls connected by springs and so they wobble as would any structure of masses connected by springs. This is true whether the crystal is diamond or the molecule is caffeine, kahweol, cocaine or semtex (do you see where the customs part is going to come in yet?). Different crystal structures have different atomic arrangements meaning that they are effectively connected by springs of differing strength. If you build a mental model of masses connected with springs, you can see that changing the spring strength will change the vibration energy of the structure. So if now we think about the photons hitting such a structure, while most will bounce off as we saw with the droplet hitting the V60 wall, some photons will trigger a wobble in the crystal structure and bounce off with lower energy. It is a process analogous to the droplet hitting and bouncing off the collection of bubbles on the coffee surface.

Sun-dog, Sun dog

Sun dogs are caused by a different interaction between light and crystals. Rather than the inelastic scattering of Raman spectroscopy, Sun dogs are caused by the refraction of light by hexagonal platelets of ice crystals.

When a photon of light loses energy, it is equivalent to saying that the frequency of the light has changed (which is very closely related to what Albert Einstein got his Nobel prize for in 1921). So a photon that creates a crystal vibration and is scattered off with lower energy has a lower frequency (or longer wavelength) than it had when it first hit the crystal. Importantly, the energy lost by the photon is identical to the energy gained by the vibrating crystal and so by measuring the frequency change of the scattered light we have a way of determining the energy of the crystal (or molecule) vibration. As this energy depends on the way that the atoms are arranged in the crystal or molecule, measuring the frequency shift offers us a way of identifying the chemical under the laser light: kahweol or cocaine.

It is not an easy technique as you can guess from the V60 analogy. Only around one in a million photons incident on a solid will be Raman scattered. You need some pretty decent optics to detect it. Nonetheless, it is a powerful technique because no two chemical structures are the same and so it can be used to identify tiny amounts of smuggled material completely non-destructively. It becomes easier to understand how this elegant technique has become useful for many areas of our lives from customs, through to pharmaceutical development and even into understanding how fuel cells work.

Although it is stretching the analogy too far to say that you can see Raman scattering by watching the droplets on your V60, it is certainly fair to say that watching them allows you the space to think about what is happening on a more microscopic level as your bag is hand-scanned at customs. What do you see when you look closely at your brewing coffee?


Bouncing Coffee

floating, bouncing drops

Water droplets ‘floating’ on a bath of water (actually they bounce rather than float).

Perhaps you remember the video about how to ‘float’ coffee droplets on water posted on the Daily Grind a few weeks ago? The video featured an experiment that you could do at home in which droplets of water (or coffee, or even, if you were feeling adventurous, tea) could be made to stay as spherical droplets on the surface of a shallow dish of water for minutes at a time. Of course there were a few tricks: The water had soap added to it (10ml of soap to 100ml of water) and the shallow dish was on a loudspeaker which was playing music at the time. The whole experiment was very pretty. But hopefully as well as appreciating the aesthetics, you were asking ‘how’ and ‘why’? Why does the addition of soap mean that these globules of liquid appear to float on the liquid surface? And is the rumour you have heard about a connection with quantum physics true?

Well it turns out that people have known about these floating droplets for over a hundred years but why they behave as they do is still being investigated. It is another case of cutting-edge science appearing in your coffee cup*. So it’s worth taking a look at what is going on and why we needed to add soap and vibration for the droplets to remain stable on the water surface.

lilies on water, rain on a pond, droplets

When it rains, the rain drops don’t float on the pond

It seems to appeal to common sense and to everyday experience that if we drop a droplet onto a bath of water, the droplet will merge with the water and become part of the bath. After all, when we bring two drops that we have dripped on a table close to each other, at a certain distance between the two drops, they appear to touch and then rapidly merge into one big droplet (try it). And when it rains onto a pond, we don’t see lots of spherical droplets hovering over the surface of the pond! We know that it is the attractive van der Waals forces that bring the two drops together and then the effects of surface tension that minimise the surface area of the drops so that they become one big drop. So how is it that we can get a droplet to remain, as a droplet, on the surface of a bath of water?

How to bounce water droplets on a water surface

It could be said that the answer can be pulled out of thin air: Before the drops can merge, the air that separates them has to escape from the area between the droplet and the water bath. If the droplet can somehow be made to bounce back upwards before the air separating the droplet from the bath becomes thin enough for the two liquids to combine, the air could be made into a cushion to keep pushing the droplet upwards. This is why the experiment needs to be done with a vibrating dish of water, each time the surface vibrates upwards it is providing the drop with an acceleration upwards that overcomes gravity, like a miniature trampoline: The droplet is not floating, it is bouncing.

So why soap? We all know that the addition of soap decreases the surface tension of the water. But that is not why the addition of soap helps to stabilise the drops in this instance. No, soap has another effect and that is to increase the surface viscosity (and surface elasticity) of the water. Think about the air between the droplet and the dish. As the droplet bounces down (ie. the distance between droplet and water becomes a minimum), the air gets squeezed out of the layer between the droplet and the bath. On the other hand, as the droplet reaches its peak height, air will rush into the gap between the drop and the bath. If the liquid is not very viscous (eg. water), as the air rushes in (or gets squeezed out), it will combine with the liquid and form a turbulent layer on the surface of the droplet. If the viscosity is increased, the air cannot ‘entrain’ the liquid as the droplet bounces and so the drop keeps its shape more easily and is more stable. Soap increases the surface viscosity of the droplet and so helps with this effect. However soap also increases the surface elasticity and makes it harder for the air to flow out of the layer separating the drop from the bath. It is because soap does multiple things to the water (or coffee) that more recent studies have focussed on liquids with controllable viscosity but minimal surfactant effects, i.e. silicone oils. It is just that if you want it to work with coffee, it is easier to add the soap to get the experiment to work.

An “un-cut” video of coffee on water shows how tricky it can be to actually get these drops to be stable on the surface of the water.

Which leaves the quantum link. The experiment shown in the videos show single droplets (or droplet patterns) stabilised by vibrations caused by music. If instead of music you use fixed frequencies to excite resonances through the speakers, it is possible to get the droplet to resonate in a controlled way and, at a certain point, it will move. As the droplet moves, it appears to be guided by the vibrations of the liquid underneath the drop, it is a particle guided by a ‘pilot wave’. It turns out that such walking droplets show behaviour reminiscent of the ‘wave particle duality‘ found in quantum physics where particles (such as electrons and other sub-atomic particles) can be described both as particles and as waves. You can find a video describing the similarities between these bouncing droplets and quantum effects here.


* Ok, so you may not want to add soap to your coffee to see this effect but actually I first observed it in a milky tea. Adding milk to the coffee/tea would increase its viscosity which makes the observation of the bouncing droplets more likely. The ‘milk’ used in the video was actually soya milk which did not appear to increase the viscosity sufficiently to allow the droplets to bounce on the surface without soap.