Sliding Along

A water droplet propels on a slick layer of oil.

Robust, self-cleaning surfaces are a holy grail for many engineers, but they’re tough to achieve. One necessary ingredient for a self-cleaning surface is the ability to shed water, which is why superhydrophobic coatings and surface treatments are popular. Here, researchers prompt their droplets to move at speeds up to 16 cm/s by dropping them onto a thin layer of heated oil.

Longtime readers will no doubt be reminded of self-propelling Leidenfrost drops, but this situation is not quite the same. In general, the oil layer suppresses the Leidenfrost effect. Instead, the oil heats the drop, evaporating its vapor. A bubble of vapor will nucleate at a random location in the droplet and eject itself, pushing the drop in the opposite direction. Because of the disruption caused by that ejection, new bubbles will preferentially form at the same spot, providing an ongoing supply of vapor that keeps the drop sliding in the same direction. It’s like a miniature rocket zooming along the oil film! (Image and research credit: V. Leon and K. Varanasi; via APS Physics)

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