Wheeling Drops

Leidenfrost drops – which skitter almost frictionlessly across extremely hot surfaces on a thin layer of their own vapor – are notoriously mobile. We’ve seen numerous methods of controlling their propulsion, often using specially-shaped surfaces. But it turns out that some Leidenfrost drops can self-propel even on a smooth, flat surface (top image). 

Internally, large Leidenfrost drops have complicated, but symmetric flows that are driven by temperature and surface tension variations across the drop. But as the drop evaporates, that symmetry eventually gets broken, leaving behind a single large circulating flow. 

Beneath the drop, that internal circulation affects the vapor layer. It causes the layer to take on an overall tilt, and the rotation, along with that slight angle in the vapor layer, causes the Leidenfrost drop to roll away like a wheel. (Image and research credit: A. Bouillant et al.; via NYTimes)

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