A Moment of Science

Ring Around The Coffee

You spill some coffee, after the spill dries you notice a ring... what causes the ring around the coffee?

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Photo: massdistraction (flickr)

The mystery is solved... why coffee rings appear!

Next time you spill a little, let the coffee dry before wiping it up. You’ll notice that after it dries there is a darkish ring around the very edge of the spill, whereas the middle disappears almost entirely.

What’s going on here?

Robert Deegan and Sydney Nagel at the University of Chicago looked into this phenomenon, and they discovered something pretty interesting. The coffee puddle leaves a ring because it doesn’t simply dry where it sits.

As the spill begins to dry, it actually creates its own outward motion, drawing the insides of the puddle toward the edges.

Why is that?

It’s because the edges of the spill are where the fluid is at its thinnest. A spill sitting on a flat surface is something like a pancake. Big in the middle and thin on the rim.

As the thin edges evaporate, they are replenished by liquid and particles of coffee from the denser interior. That starts an outward push going in the puddle. The more it dries, the more particles get drawn out to the edges. When all of the liquid has evaporated we’re left with a ring of coffee particles making a stain.

Read More: Ringing up a coffee stain – research on capillary flow in ring deposition of stains (Find Articles)

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