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Jumping droplets help heat transfer

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(Image credit: MIT)

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.