Drops of a liquid can often join a pool gradually through a process known as the coalescence cascade (top left). In this process, a drop sits atop a pool, separated by a thin air layer. Once that air drains out, contact is made and part of the drop coalesces. Then a smaller daughter droplet rebounds and the process repeats.
A recent study describes a related phenomenon (top right) in which the coalescence cascade is drastically sped up through the use of surfactants. The normal cascade depends strongly on the amount of time it takes for the air layer between the drop and pool to drain. By making the pool a liquid with a much greater surface tension value than the drop, the researchers sped up the air layer’s drainage. The mismatch in surface tension between the drop and pool creates an outward flow on the surface (below) due to the Marangoni effect. As the pool’s liquid moves outward, it drags air with it, thereby draining the separating layer more quickly. The result is still a coalescence cascade but one in which the later stages have no rebound and coalesce quickly. (Image and research credit: S. Shim and H. Stone, source)