Structural devices
Structural devices

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Structural devices

5 Short range forces

5.1 Stickiness

Stickiness is something that we take for granted in the macroscopic world; it's what happens when you put your elbow in some jam, or spill a sugary drink then put a paper on the drying surface. It's also responsible for friction: everyone knows that gripping a sliding rope will produce enough heat to cause severe burns. But where does this heat come from, and why is stickiness important in the microscopic world?

Atomic and molecular bonds come with a wide range of strengths: from very strong ionic and covalent bonds, involving exchange of charge, to very weak bonds between molecules in liquids, which have slight and fluctuating charge imbalances. These weak interactions are often referred to as van der Waals bonds.

So how do such interactions occur? Broadly speaking, they take place between electrically neutral atoms and molecules which, at first sight, might appear to offer no means of interacting electrically. Even for an electrically neutral atom or molecule, if I inspect it closely enough, I will find a discernible charge distribution; in the presence of an electric field, if the charges are mobile, this distribution will tend to become more pronounced.

Imagine bringing two electrically neutral objects together from a distance, each with an internal charge distribution; see Figure 22. These could be atoms or molecules or even larger entities. I'm going to use atoms because the locations and mobility of the charges are easy to visualise. At large distances there would be no attraction between the two. However, as they approach each other the charge distribution from the electrons in one will influence that in the other and an attractive force will emerge.

Figure 22
Figure 22 (a) Charge distribution in neutral bodies; (b) effects on charge distribution at close range

If the two continue to move together, then the outer electrons will reach a state where they can no longer screen the positive charges of the nuclei from each other and a strong repulsive force will emerge. Somewhere between these two positions is a neutral position where the atoms would ‘prefer’ to rest. The way that the force between the two atoms changes with their separation is shown in Figure 23.

Figure 23
Figure 23 Force vs separation graph for two electrically neutral atoms


Identify the two points of equilibrium in Figure 23.


Points of equilibrium occur where the force is zero. One is at infinite distance (very large separation, practically speaking) and the other is where the repulsive forces balance the attractive forces and the line crosses the separation axis.

There are two distinct ways in which charge distributions that produce these weak bonds can occur: one is static and the other is time-dependent. I will look at the two cases separately; however, in general bonds occur because of combinations of both effects.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has over 40 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus