Testing Viscosity

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Mrs. Butterworth's syrup proved to be quite a challenge to get into the testing tube, but eventually we did it. Luckily there was enough left over for a high-energy snack.

Mmmm, Mrs. Butterworth. I loooooovvve you.

The first steel ball took 4 and a half minutes to reach the bottom of the tube. The second took 4:23 and the third took 4:03. Mike and Brooke were falling asleep watching the balls drop.

The tests revealed a very thick syrup, which makes all the difference in the morning. No wonder we don't use soy sauce on our pancakes anymore.


The next fluid we wanted to test was egg whites.

We tried pouring the egg whites down the funnel, but the membranes in them resisted. We used a chopstick to coax them into the tube.


Egg whites, also known as albumen, are made up of 90% water and 10% icky gross.

The balls dropped through the egg with unsteady, halted motion. The first one dropped in 10.17 seconds, then 10.28 seconds, and 9.73 seconds. One ball actually got stuck in the eggy membrane halfway down the tube so we discarded that score.

We dumped the egg whites into the discard bowl and poured in the next fluid: isopropyl alcohol, also known as "fools vodka"

It was the only liquid that had a faster time than plain water. Balls fell at 2.36 seconds, 2.42 seconds and 2.30 seconds.

Target Brand liquid hand soap was next.

I'd recently been introduced to the miracle of Dial Complete Antibacterial hand wash, an incredible, but rather thin soap product. I was excited to find out just how much thicker this common liquid soap was than Dial Complete.

The Target liquid was so thick that we grew tired of waiting for it to fill the tube. I changed tactics and used the tube to suck the soap up, like an oversized drinking straw.

Like pancake syrup and chili, liquid soaps use their thickness as a selling point. 

Perhaps in the future some products will feature a real viscosity rating.

The Target soap was very, very thick.  The first bb took 9˝ minutes to fall through the soap, the second took 9 minutes, and the third took 7˝ minutes. This soap was incredible.

I could see the beads slowing down as they approached the bottom of the soap column.

Dial Complete isn't thick at all... it is very thin, but I love it just the same. Brooke appreciated the foam, but was annoyed at the "10x More Effective Germ Kill" they advertise. They probably could have at least tried to form a sentence.

Dial complete is sold with a special Activ-foam™ System. This pump which delivers a fluffy pile of bubbly lather, eliminating the six seconds of manual lathering that regular liquid soap requires. 

Dropping steel balls through Dial complete was 130 times faster than the Target soap. Balls took 4 seconds, 3.5 seconds, 3.5 seconds and 3.2 seconds.

We ran out of time that night and didn't actually get to Molasses, but I did get back to it later.

Molasses is the historical viscosity champion, so I knew it would be a vital component to this study.  I dropped the balls in one at a time and used a flashlight to keep them from disappearing. Eventually the balls emerged safely at the bottom, shaken from their harrowing journey.

Balls dropped in molasses required 18 minutes, 18 minutes and 19 minutes to travel the six feet down the tube.

The final test was Chevron Supreme 10W30 motor oil. This was an important part of the viscosity testing because the oil viscosity is actually known, stated right on the bottle.

The three balls took 17.68 seconds, 17.9 and 17.9 seconds to drop through.

Unfortunately, the 10W30 is an arbitrary rating system created by the Society of Automotive Engineers. 

A long journey of scientific confusion ensued. I love science, and I consider myself a superstar at problem solving, but calculating and understanding the dynamics of fluid viscosity challenged every cell in my brain.

My brain felt like that bowl of discarded test liquids.

If you are wild about physics you might be interested in the calculations page, otherwise check out the final spreadsheet of viscosity.

For more information on viscosity, read these slides from Bowling Green State University, this page at the University of Exeter or many others.

Viscosity 1 2 3 calculations spreadsheet | cockeyed science club | cockeyed homeContact Rob  

Last updated March 9, 2003.

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    A good way to remember if high viscosity is thick or thin is to think of water: Water has no caffeine, no sugar, no salt and no viscosity.