Why Teapots Always Drip – Scientists Finally Explain the “Teapot Effect”

Teapot Pouring Tea

It’s all about momentum — and tiny amounts of liquid right at the spout.

Scientists at TU Wien answer an age-old question: How can the so-called “teapot effect” be explained?

The “teapot effect” has been threatening spotless white tablecloths for ages: if a liquid is poured out of a teapot too slowly, then the flow of liquid sometimes does not detach itself from the teapot, finding its way into the cup, but dribbles down at the outside of the teapot.

This phenomenon has been studied scientifically for decades — now a research team at TU Wien has succeeded in describing the “teapot effect” completely and in detail with an elaborate theoretical analysis and numerous experiments: An interplay of different forces keeps a tiny amount of liquid directly at the edge, and this is sufficient to redirect the flow of liquid under certain conditions.

An effect with a long history

The “teapot effect” was first described by Markus Reiner in 1956. Reiner earned his doctorate at TU Wien in 1913 and then emigrated to the USA, where he became an important pioneer of rheology – the science of flow behavior. Again and again, scientists have tried to explain this effect precisely. Work on this topic was awarded the satirical “IG Nobel Prize” in 1999. Now, research on the teapot effect has come full circle, as it was studied at Reiner’s alma mater, the TU Wien, by a team around Dr. Bernhard Scheichl, lecturer at the Institute of Fluid Mechanics and Heat Transfer and Key Scientist at the Austrian Centre of Excellence for Tribology (AC2T research GmbH), in cooperation with the Department of Mathematics at the University College London.

The teapot effect at different flow rates. Credit: TU Wien

“Although this is a very common and seemingly simple effect, it is remarkably difficult to explain it exactly within the framework of fluid mechanics,” says Bernhard Scheichl. The sharp edge on the underside of the teapot beak plays the most important role: a drop forms, the area directly below the edge always remains wet. The size of this drop depends on the speed at which the liquid flows out of the teapot. If the speed is lower than a critical threshold, this drop can direct the entire flow around the edge and dribbles down on the outside wall of the teapot.

“We have now succeeded for the first time in providing a complete theoretical explanation of why this drop forms and why the underside of the edge always remains wetted,” says Bernhard Scheichl. The mathematics behind it is complicated – it is an interplay of inertia, viscous and capillary forces. The inertial force ensures that the fluid tends to maintain its original direction, while the capillary forces slow the fluid down right at the beak. The interaction of these forces is the basis of the teapot effect. However, the capillary forces ensure that the effect only starts at a very specific contact angle between the wall and the liquid surface. The smaller this angle is or the more hydrophilic (i.e. wettable) the material of the teapot is, the more the detachment of the liquid from the teapot is slowed down.

Tea in space

Interestingly, the strength of gravity in relation to the other forces that occur does not play a decisive role. Gravity merely determines the direction in which the jet is directed, but its strength is not decisive for the teapot effect. The teapot effect would therefore also be observed when drinking tea on a moon base, but not on a space station with no gravity at all.

The theoretical calculations on the teapot effect were published by the research team in September 2021 in the Journal of Fluid Mechanics. Now experiments were also carried out: Water was poured from an inclined teapot at different flow rates and filmed with high speed cameras. In this way, it was possible to show exactly how the wetting of the edge below a critical pouring rate leads to the “teapot effect,” thus confirming the theory.

Reference: “Developed liquid film passing a smoothed and wedge-shaped trailing edge: small-scale analysis and the ‘teapot effect’ at large Reynolds numbers” by B. Scheichl, R.I. Bowles and G. Pasias, 8 September 2021, Journal of Fluid Mechanics.
DOI: 10.1017/jfm.2021.612

5 Comments on "Why Teapots Always Drip – Scientists Finally Explain the “Teapot Effect”"

  1. I always heard this referred to as the “Coanda Effect”. Why did you not use this name?

  2. Nice story. The radius of curvature of the spout at very lip of the teapot would also be involved. Is there any preferred curvature? Some teapots /kettles etc certainly drip a lot more than others and some simply don’t drip.

  3. Further to the above, the lip of that spout in the video looks like the classic drip-producer.

  4. I was at friends’ house for tea a few years ago and they’d bought a 18th century silver tea service with a milk jug. The jug never dripped. They were confident enough to say I could keep the jug if I could make it drip. The spout was curved like a curlew’s beak and came to a bit of a point at the tip with a very slight fold down the centre of the spout. From a theory perspective, the ‘wetted edge’ was very small and no edge drop seemed to form. Sadly, I could not make it drip even on a slow pour. They kept their non-drip jug.

  5. It seems a lot of work has gone into these various studies. I would have made a pot with a slight updraft to the lower edge of the pour spout and tilted it back when finished to be sure of not having any drips. In fact, I did, long ago for my Grandfather from Ireland for whom coffee was not an option. It worked.

    I was going through one of those classes on making pottery. That and an ornamental tree for earrings were my only claim to fame in that class.

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