Understanding Van der Waals Forces in Science and Nanotechnology

Introduction to Van der Waals Forces

Van der Waals forces represent a fundamental type of interaction between molecules. Named after the Dutch physicist Johannes Diderik van der Waals, these intermolecular forces include attractions and repulsions that affect the physical properties and behaviors of molecules. They are weaker than both covalent and ionic bonds, yet they play a crucial role in the structural and functional aspects of various materials and biological entities.
gecko foot
Photo shows the underside of the gecko's foot. Underneath the toes are 'setae,' millions of very fine hair-like structures, which provide increased surface area and close contact between the foot and the surface on which it rests. Geckos can climb smooth surfaces, including vertical glass, due to the van der Waals forces between these tiny hairs on their footpads and the surface. (Image: Emily Kane)

Types of Van der Waals Forces

Van der Waals forces can be classified into three primary categories:
  • London Dispersion Forces: Result from temporary fluctuations in electron density, leading to temporary dipole moments that induce attractions between molecules.
  • Dipole-Dipole Interactions: Occur between molecules with permanent dipole moments, leading to electrostatic attractions between the positive end of one molecule and the negative end of another.
  • Hydrogen Bonds: A specific type of dipole-dipole interaction where a hydrogen atom bonded to a highly electronegative atom is attracted to another electronegative atom in a different molecule.

Significance of Van der Waals Forces

Van der Waals forces are critical for a multitude of processes and properties, including:

  • The determination of boiling and melting points in various substances.
  • Structural and functional roles in biological molecules, such as DNA and proteins.
  • Influencing the assembly and properties of nanomaterials.

Real-World Examples of Van der Waals Forces

One of the most fascinating examples of van der Waals forces in action is observed in the animal kingdom: Geckos climbing vertical walls. Geckos can climb smooth surfaces, including vertical glass, due to the van der Waals forces between the tiny hairs on their footpads and the surface. This ability showcases the significant adhesive power that can be achieved through collective weak forces.
But there are many more examples:
Surface Adhesion
  • Water droplets on surfaces: The slight attraction between water molecules and other surfaces, such as a window pane, due to van der Waals forces helps water droplets cling and create patterns. This phenomenon is easily observed and demonstrates the universal presence of these forces.
  • Post-it Notes: The adhesive on Post-it Notes relies on van der Waals forces for their ability to stick temporarily and be repositioned without leaving a residue. This everyday example showcases the practical application of van der Waals forces in creating useful adhesive products.
Material Properties
  • Graphite: The layered structure of graphite is held together by weak van der Waals forces between the layers. This characteristic allows graphite to "slide" easily, making it useful in pencils and as a lubricant.
  • Polymers: The behavior of many polymers, including their flexibility and strength, is influenced by van der Waals forces between the long polymer chains. These forces contribute to the vast range of properties exhibited by synthetic and natural polymers.
Biological Systems
  • Protein folding: Van der Waals forces play a role in the complex folding of proteins into their specific 3D shapes, crucial for their function. This intricate process is fundamental to the biology of life.
  • Enzyme-substrate interactions: Weak van der Waals forces help enzymes recognize and bind to their target molecules, facilitating important biochemical reactions. This specific and efficient binding is essential for life's myriad biochemical processes.
These examples highlight the ubiquitous and varied role of van der Waals forces across different scales and systems, from everyday objects to the fundamental processes of biology.


Van der Waals forces are essential for understanding the nuances of molecular interactions and the physical properties of materials. Their influence extends from the macroscopic properties of substances to the stability and behavior of complex biological structures and nanoscale materials.

Further Reading

RSC Philosophical Transactions B, van der Waals forces influencing adhesion of cells