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Study of tiny droplets could have big applications
by John Sullivan
Princeton NJ (SPX) Feb 29, 2012

A study led by researchers at Princeton University has yielded insights into how liquid spreads along flexible fibers, which could allow for increased efficiency in various industrial applications. The team's experiments show that the size of oil droplets determines whether they spread along flexible glass fibers. At the critical size (top two examples), the droplets expand into columns of liquid, but larger droplets sit immobile between the glass rods (bottom example). (Image courtesy of Camille Duprat and Suzie Protiere)

Under a microscope, a tiny droplet slides between two fine hairs like a roller coaster on a set of rails until - poof - it suddenly spreads along them, a droplet no more.

That instant of change, like the popping of soap bubble, comes so suddenly that it seems almost magical. But describing it, and mapping out how droplets stretch into tiny columns, is a key to understanding how liquids affect fibrous materials from air filters to human hair.

And that knowledge allows scientists to better describe why water soaks into some materials, beads atop others and leaves others matted and clumped.

To get those answers, an international team of researchers led by scientists at Princeton University made a series of close observations of how liquid spreads along flexible fibers.

They were able to construct a set of rules that govern the spreading behavior, including some unexpected results. In a paper published Feb. 23 in Nature, the researchers found that a key parameter was the size of the liquid drop.

"That surprised us," said Camille Duprat, the paper's lead author. "No one had thought about volume very much before."

Duprat, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, said the research team was able to determine drop sizes that maximized wetting along certain fibers, which could allow for increased efficiency in industrial applications of liquids interacting with fibrous materials - from cleaning oil slicks to developing microscopic electronics.

The team also discovered a critical drop size above which the drop would not spread along the fibers, but would remain perched like a stranded roller coaster car.

"If in any engineering problem you can learn an optimal size above which something does not happen, you have learned something very important about the system," said Howard Stone, a co-author of the paper.

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