Growth Rates and Spontaneous Navigation of Condensate Droplets Through Randomly Structured Textures

Dropwise condensation is a phenomenon of common occurrence in everyday life, the understanding and controlling of which is of great interest to applications ranging from technology to nature. Scalable superhydrophobic textures on metals are of direct relevance in improving phase change heat transport in realistic industrial applications. Here we reveal important facets of individual droplet growth rate and droplet departure during dropwise condensation on randomly structured hierarchical superhydrophobic aluminum textures, that is, surfaces with a microstructure consisting of irregular re-entrant microcavities and an overlaying nanostructure. We demonstrate that precoalescence droplet growth on such a surface can span a broad range of rates even when the condensation conditions are held constant. The fastest growth rates are observed to be more than 4 times faster as compared to the slowest growing droplets. We show that this variation in droplet growth on the hierarchical texture is primarily controlled by droplet growth dynamics on the nanostructure overlaying the microstructure and is caused by condensation-induced localized wetting nonuniformity on the nanostructure. We also show that the droplets nucleating and growing within the microcavities are able to spontaneously navigate the irregular microcavity geometry, climb the microtexture, and finally depart from the surface by coalescence-induced jumping. This self-navigation is realized by a synergistic combination of self-orienting Laplace pressure gradients induced within the droplet as it dislodges itself and moves through the texture, as well as multidroplet coalescence.