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Sci Adv. 2018 Mar 30;4(3):eaao7051. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aao7051. eCollection 2018 Mar.

Poro-elasto-capillary wicking of cellulose sponges.

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Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Seoul National University, Seoul 08826, Korea.
Department of Extreme Thermal Systems, Korea Institute of Machinery and Materials, Daejeon 34103, Korea.


We mundanely observe cellulose (kitchen) sponges swell while absorbing water. Fluid flows in deformable porous media, such as soils and hydrogels, are classically described on the basis of the theories of Darcy and poroelasticity, where the expansion of media arises due to increased pore pressure. However, the situation is qualitatively different in cellulosic porous materials like sponges because the pore expansion is driven by wetting of the surrounding cellulose walls rather than by increase of the internal pore pressure. We address a seemingly so simple but hitherto unanswered question of how fast water wicks into the swelling sponge. Our experiments uncover a power law of the wicking height versus time distinct from that for nonswelling materials. The observation using environmental scanning electron microscopy reveals the coalescence of microscale wall pores with wetting, which allows us to build a mathematical model for pore size evolution and the consequent wicking dynamics. Our study sheds light on the physics of water absorption in hygroscopically responsive multiscale porous materials, which have far more implications than everyday activities (for example, cleaning, writing, and painting) carried out with cellulosic materials (paper and sponge), including absorbent hygiene products, biomedical cell cultures, building safety, and cooking.

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