CAMBRIDGE, Mass. The condensation of water is crucial to the operation of most of the powerplants that provide our electricity whether they are fueled by coal, natural gas or nuclear fuel. It is also the key to producing potable water from salty or brackish water. But there are still large gaps in the scientific understanding of exactly how water condenses on the surfaces used to turn steam back into water in a powerplant, or to condense water in an evaporation-based desalination plant.
New research by a team at MIT offers important new insights into how these droplets form, and ways to pattern the collecting surfaces at the nanoscale to encourage droplets to form more rapidly. These insights could enable a new generation of significantly more efficient powerplants and desalination plants, the researchers say.
The new results were published online this month in the journal ACS Nano, a publication of the American Chemical Society, in a paper by MIT mechanical engineering graduate student Nenad Miljkovic, postdoc Ryan Enright and associate professor Evelyn Wang.
Although analysis of condensation mechanisms is an old field, Miljkovic says, it has re-emerged in recent years with the rise of micro- and nanopatterning technologies that shape condensing surfaces to an unprecedented degree. The key property of surfaces that influences droplet-forming behavior is known as "wettability," which determines whether droplets stand high on a surface like water drops on a hot griddle, or spread out quickly to form a thin film.
It's a question that's key to the operation of powerplants, where water is boiled using fossil fuel or the heat of nuclear fission; the resulting steam drives a turbine attached to a dynamo, producing electricity. After exiting the turbine, the steam needs to cool and condense back into liquid water, so it can return to the boiler and begin the process again. (That's what goes on inside the giant cooling tower
|Contact: Caroline McCall|
Massachusetts Institute of Technology