Have you ever sat watching the steam that forms above a hot Americano? Beneath the swirling steam clouds you can occasionally see patterns of a white mist that seem to hover just above the dark brew. Bean Thinking is about taking time to notice what occurs in a coffee cup and yet I admit, I had seen these mists and thought that it was something that was just associated with the evaporation of the water and that “someone”, “somewhere” had probably explained it. So it was entirely right that I was recently taken to task (collectively with others who have observed this phenomenon and taken the same attitude) for this assumption by the authors of this paper who wrote “The phenomenon that we studied here can be observed everyday and should have been noticed by many scientists, yet very few people appear to have imagined such fascinating phenomena happening in a teacup.”
The authors of the study show that the white mists (these “fascinating phenomena”) are, in fact, layers of water drops that have a typical diameter of around 10 μm (which is roughly the size of the smallest particles in an espresso grind). Although the white mists exist above tea and even hot water as well as coffee, they are probably easiest to see against the black surface of the Americano.
More surprising than the fairly uniform distribution of water droplet size though is the fact that the authors of this study showed that the droplets were levitating above the coffee. Each water droplet was somehow literally hovering above the surface of the coffee at a height of between 10 – 100 μm (which is, coincidentally, roughly the particle size distribution in an espresso grind).
One of the questions that the authors of the paper have not yet managed to answer is what is causing this levitation? Could it be the pressure of the hot coffee evaporating that keeps these particles held aloft? This would explain the observation that the mists form patterns similar to those caused by (heat) convection currents. Alternatively perhaps the droplets are charged and are kept away from the coffee by electrostatic repulsion, an explanation that is suggested by the behaviour of the droplets when near a statically charged object (eg. hair comb, balloon, try it). Perhaps the levitation is caused by the droplets spinning and inducing an air cushion under them? Why not design some experiments and try to find out. It would be great if we can drink hot black coffee in the name of science. Let me know the results of your observations in the comments section below. In the meanwhile, here is a video of the white mists in tea, enjoy your coffee:
You can read the study at: Umeki et al., Scientific Reports, 5, 8046, (2015)