Thursday, February 13, 2020

Film boiling and the Leidenfrost point

While setting up my eddy current bounce demonstration, I was able to film some other fun physics.

Heat transfer and two-phase (liquid+gas) fluid flow is a complicated business that has occupied the time of many scientists and engineers for decades.  A liquid that is boiling at a given pressure is pinned to a particular temperature - that's the way the first-order liquid-vapor transition works.  Water at atmospheric pressure boils at 100 C; adding energy to the liquid water at 100 C via heat transfer converts water into vapor rather than increasing the temperature of the liquid.  

Here we are using liquid nitrogen (LN2), which boils at 77 K = -196 C at atmospheric pressure, and are trying to cool a piece of copper plate that initially started out much warmer than that.  When the temperature difference between the copper and the LN2 is sufficiently high, there is a large heat flux that creates a layer of nitrogen vapor between the copper and the liquid.  This is called film boiling.   You've seen this in practice if you've ever put a droplet of water into a really hot skillet, or dumped some LN2 on the floor.  The droplet slides around with very low friction because it is supported by that vapor layer.  

Once the temperature difference between the copper and the LN2 becomes small, the heat flux is no longer sufficient to support film boiling (the Leidenfrost point), and the vapor layer collapses - that brings more liquid into direct contact with the copper, leading to more vigorous boiling and agitation.  That happens at about 45 seconds into the video.  Then, once the copper is finally at the same temperature as the liquid, boiling ceases and everything gets calm.  

For a more technical discussion of this, see here.  It's written up on a site about nuclear power because water-based heat exchangers are a key component of multiple power generation technologies.  


Mayer Landau said...

Why are the bubbles moving to the left?

Douglas Natelson said...

Those aren't bubbles moving to the left. Those are blobs of liquid nitrogen on the surface of the copper plate. They're sliding to the left because the plate is a little bit tilted, and that's the downhill direction.