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Why test inks cannot tell the full truth about surface free energy

A comparative study between test inks and contact angle measurements in our laboratory

There are a range of methods for activating the surface when treating materials before coating, bonding or printing. These include thermal or electrical methods, such as plasma, flame or corona treatment, and chemical treatment with oxidizing gases. Equally important are cleaning steps which remove hydrophobic substances from the surface. All these methods increase the surface free energy (SFE) and therefore improve wettability and adhesion.


Norms such as DIN 55660 for coating materials and DIN EN 828 for adhesive processes specify contact angle measurement as the method for determining the SFE of surfaces and for checking an activating or cleaning pre-treatment process. In addition, test inks, which are intended to reflect the SFE based on liquids with set surface tension (SFT), are also frequently used.


According to the ink test method, complete wetting always occurs when the values of the SFE of the solid and the SFT of the liquid are equal. Many scientific authors have refuted this wetting theory and have shown that only an analysis of the polar and disperse interaction parts of the SFE and the SFT provide a complete picture of the wetting process. Contact angle measurements, which take these interactions into account, and ink tests should accordingly lead to different evaluations of surfaces and therefore also to different assessments of the quality of a pre-treatment process.


In the present study, we have compared SFE results from contact angle measurements with those from ink tests for 13 very different materials. We also carried out comparative measurements on three plasma-treated plastics. Both the small number of consistent results and the large number of deviations can be conclusively explained when we take the effect of polar and disperse interactions into account. It appears that the SFE result of an ink test must be called into question for many samples. In this article, we also point out some advantages of the contact angle method in measurement practice.

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