Many industrial plants depend on water vapor condensing on metal plates: In power plants, the resulting water is then returned to a boiler to be vaporized again; in desalination plants, it yields a supply of clean water. The efficiency of such plants depends crucially on how easily droplets of water can form on these metal plates, or condensers, and how easily they fall away, leaving room for more droplets to form.
The key to improving the efficiency of such plants is to increase the condensers’ heat-transfer coefficient — a measure of how readily heat can be transferred away from those surfaces, explains Nenad Miljkovic, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering at MIT. As part of his thesis research, he and colleagues have done just that: designing, making and testing a coated surface with nanostructured patterns that greatly increase the heat-transfer coefficient.
On a typical, flat-plate condenser, water vapor condenses to form a liquid film on the surface, drastically reducing the condenser’s ability to collect more water until gravity drains the film. “It acts as a barrier to heat transfer,” Miljkovic says. He and other researchers have focused on ways of encouraging water to bead up into droplets that then fall away from the surface, allowing more rapid water removal.
“The way to remove the thermal barrier is to remove [the droplets] as quickly as possible,” he says. Many researchers have studied ways of doing this by creating hydrophobic surfaces, either through chemical treatment or through surface patterning. But Miljkovic and his colleagues have now taken this a step further by making scalable surfaces with nanoscale features that barely touch the droplets.
The result: Droplets don’t just fall from the surface, but actually jump away from it, increasing the efficiency of the process. The energy released as tiny droplets merge to form larger ones is enough to propel the droplets upward from the surface, meaning the removal of droplets doesn’t depend solely on gravity.
Other researchers have worked on nanopatterned surfaces to induce such jumping, but these have tended to be complex and expensive to manufacture, usually requiring a clean-room environment. Those approaches also require flat surfaces, not the tubing or other shapes often used in condensers. Finally, prior research has not tested the enhanced heat transfer predicted for these types of surfaces.
Not only can the nanostructured patterns be made and applied under room-temperature conditions, but the growth process naturally stops itself. “It’s a self-limiting reaction,” Miljkovic says, “whether you put it in [the treatment solution] for two minutes or two hours.”
After the leaflike pattern is created, a hydrophobic coating is applied when a vapor solution bonds itself to the patterned surface without significantly altering its shape. The team’s experiments showed that the efficiency of heat transfer using these treated surfaces could be increased by 30 percent, compared to today’s best hydrophobic condensing surfaces.
That means, Miljkovic says, that the process lends itself to retrofitting thousands of power plants already in operation around the world. The technology could also be useful for other processes where heat transfer is important, such as in dehumidifiers and for heating and cooling systems for buildings.
Challenges for this approach remain, Miljkovic says: If too many droplets form, they can “flood” the surface, reducing its heat-transfer ability. “We are working on delaying this surface flooding and creating more robust solutions that can work well [under] all operating conditions,” he says.
ABSTRACT – When droplets coalesce on a superhydrophobic nanostructured surface, the resulting droplet can jump from the surface due to the release of excess surface energy. If designed properly, these superhydrophobic nanostructured surfaces can not only allow for easy droplet removal at micrometric length scales during condensation but also promise to enhance heat transfer performance. However, the rationale for the design of an ideal nanostructured surface as well as heat transfer experiments demonstrating the advantage of this jumping behavior are lacking. Here, we show that silanized copper oxide surfaces created via a simple fabrication method can achieve highly efficient jumping-droplet condensation heat transfer. We experimentally demonstrated a 25% higher overall heat flux and 30% higher condensation heat transfer coefficient compared to state-of-the-art hydrophobic condensing surfaces at low supersaturations (less than 1.12). This work not only shows significant condensation heat transfer enhancement but also promises a low cost and scalable approach to increase efficiency for applications such as atmospheric water harvesting and dehumidification. Furthermore, the results offer insights and an avenue to achieve high flux superhydrophobic condensation.