Ode to Bubbles

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Boiling water plays a major role in the steam cycles we use to generate power. One of the challenges in these systems is that it’s hard to control the rate of bubble formation when boiling. In this video, researchers demonstrate their new method for bubble control in a clever and amusing fashion. The twin keys to their success are surfactants and electricity. Surfactant molecules, like soap, have both a polar (hydrophilic) end and a non-polar (hydrophobic) end. By applying an electric field at the metal surface, the researchers can attract or repel surfactant molecules from the wall, making it either hydrophobic or hydrophilic depending on the field’s polarity. Since hydrophobic surfaces have a high rate of bubble formation, this lets the scientists essentially turn nucleation on and off with the flip of a switch! (Video credit: MIT Device Research Lab; see also: research paperMIT News Video, press release)

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