I am a 3rd grade student and would like to do a science project for the science fair. My question is why does salt make objects float? (small objects like eggs, paperclips) — MP, Brooklyn, New York
Adding salt to water won’t make everything float, but it will work for an object that just barely sinks in pure water. A hard-boiled egg is the most famous example: the egg will sink in pure water, but float in concentrated salt water. To explain why that happens, I need to tell you about the two forces that act on the egg when it’s in the water.
First, the egg has its weight—it’s being pulled downward by gravity. That weight force tends to make the egg sink. Second, the egg is being pushed upward by the water around it with a force known as “the buoyant force.” The buoyant force tends to make the egg float. It’s a battle between those two forces and the strongest one wins.
The buoyant force exists because the water that is now surrounding the egg used to be surrounding an egg-shaped blob of water and it was pushing up on that blob of water just hard enough to support the blob’s weight. Now that the egg has replace the egg-shaped blob of water, the surrounding water is still pushing up the same amount as before and that upward force on the egg is the buoyant force.
Since the buoyant force on the egg is equal in amount to the weight of the water that used to be there, it can support the egg only if the egg weighs no more than the egg-shaped blob of water. If the egg is heavier than that blob of water, the buoyant force will be too weak to support it and the egg will sink.
It so happens that a hard-boiled egg weighs slightly more than an egg-shaped blob of pure water, so it sinks in pure water. But that egg weighs slightly less than an egg-shaped blob of very salty water. Adding salt to the water increases the water’s weight significantly while having only a small effect on the water’s volume. Salt water is heavier, cup for cup, than fresh water and it produces stronger buoyant forces.
In general, any object that weighs more than the fluid it displaces sinks in that fluid. And any object that weighs less than the fluid it displaces floats. You are another good example of this: you probably sink in fresh water, particularly after letting out all the air in your lungs. But you float nicely in extremely salty water. The woman in this photograph is floating like a cork in the ultra-salty water of the Dead Sea.