Leidenfrost droplets typically hover on a thin layer of vapor above a surface that is much hotter than the boiling point of the liquid. Such drops move almost frictionlessly across these surfaces and can even propel themselves. The question of how hot is hot enough to produce the Leidenfrost effect is still being debated, but recent research suggests that the answer may depend strongly on surface roughness.
To test the role of surface roughness, one group tested drops of ethanol atop a heated pool of silicone oil, as pictured above. Ethanol’s boiling point is 78 degrees Celsius, and the researchers found they could hold the ethanol drop in a Leidenfrost state by heating the pool to 79 degrees Celsius – only 1 degree above ethanol’s boiling point! Thanks to surface tension, a liquid surface is essentially molecularly smooth. The fact that solid surfaces require much higher temperatures before the Leidenfrost effect is observed indicates that even the slightest roughness can have a large impact on the Leidenfrost temperature. (Image credit: F. Cavagnon; research credit: L. Maquet et al., pdf)
Heads-up for Boston-area folks! I’ll be taking part this Saturday evening in the Improbable Research show at the AAAS conference. The show is free and open to the public but fills up quickly, so be sure to come early for a seat.