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Surfactants—molecules that change the surface properties of liquids—can enhance the rate of heat transfer in boiling, which could improve power generation, heating/cooling/refrigeration, and other applications. Boiling involves cycles of bubble nucleation, growth, and departure. These behaviors are modified as surfactants adsorb to the bubble surface, lowering surface tension and changing the bubble contact angle. Unique to each type of surfactant, there is a critical micelle concentration (CMC) above which surfactant molecules aggregate into larger structures called micelles. From conventional wisdom, adding surfactants beyond the CMC increases liquid viscosity, resulting in an overall lowering of heat transfer. Thus, to optimize heat transfer, the optimal concentration should be near the CMC. This is because the Reynolds and Rayleigh numbers of the liquid decrease—reducing the ability of the liquid to convect heat. However, our testing has found that different surfactants experience a marked “bump” in heat transfer performance occurring at the 6–7 mM range. Our results suggest the existence of a universal optimized concentration for surfactants. We hypothesize that this concentration is due to the rate surfactants enter the bubbly region via liquid motion (advection) matching the rate at which surfactants exit the region via bubble surfaces. We are continuing experiments with nonionic (TWEEN families) and ionic (sodium sulfate families) surfactants with vastly different CMCs to see if they all experience a similar “bump” around 6–7 mM. The implications could have great practical impact as engineers could consult a universal concentration to achieve optimal heat transfer efficiency with any surfactant.

Publication Date

Fall 11-15-2021




Heat Transfer; Surfactants; Universal Concentration; Surfactant; Boiling

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5000 KB


Faculty Mentor: Jeremy Cho, Ph.D.


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Surfactant Use in Boiling Heat Transfer Alludes to a Universal Concentration?