£700k award funds new research into ways to control liquid droplets

Academics are to continue their ground-breaking research into the behaviour of liquids.

Black droplets
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Research into the behaviour of liquids
Black droplets

The team from Northumbria’s Smart Materials and Surfaces Laboratory will work in partnership with Nottingham Trent University on the three-year study, which has received £700,000 funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

To initiate a process called ‘Dynamic Dewetting,’ the researchers will use electrical voltages to force liquids placed on certain types of surface to form specific shapes, such as triangles and squares, and then retract. This has never previously been possible.

The study aims to provide new understanding of how liquids can behave and interact and will have important implications for industrial use. Screen printing, for example, is only successful because of the way that the ink droplets interact with the solid surface. This enables them to form the final shapes that you want them to appear in.

In 2016, the prestigious journal Science Advances published findings from the same team after they had observed, for the first time, the elusive dewetting process and how to control how liquids spread out on surfaces. Thanks to their work, the techniques they discovered have been implemented into software for use throughout the printing industry.

Professor Glen McHale is the principal investigator on the study. He explained: “When a liquid is deposited on a smooth surface, the wetting process means that it spreads across the surface until it becomes a film or reaches an equilibrium droplet shape.

“If we think about liquids splashing, for example, the splash spreads out in a film as far as it can go across the surface. Look closely and you’ll see it becomes flatter in the middle and fatter around its edges. Dewetting is the opposite of this process and occurs when a fluid retracts from a surface and forms a droplet.

“In this study, we will look at liquid that normally wouldn’t form a film on a smooth surface. By introducing an electrical voltage, we will encourage the liquid to spread into a non-naturally occurring shape, such as a triangle, a square or a star. We also intend to investigate new ways in which we can detach and reattach droplets or bubbles onto surfaces in a controlled manner.

“This science has never previously been possible. Our analysis of how the liquids behave and evolve will provide industry with the ability to finely control the application of liquid films for printing or coatings.”

Professor Carl Brown, the project lead at Nottingham Trent University, said: “We’re thrilled to be continuing our long and productive collaboration with colleagues at Northumbria University, building from our joint pioneering work on using electricity to make liquids behave in unusual ways.

“It’s particularly exciting to be exploring new avenues of research on the project, for example the ability to manipulate air bubbles at will could lead to innovative techniques to improve the performance of  miniature cooling systems.”   


Northumbria’s Smart Materials and Surfaces Laboratory is at the forefront of international research into how liquids behave and interact with surfaces. The group researches how surfaces with particular properties, or with properties that can be changed by external forces, can shape liquids. They also undertake research into how surfaces can reduce drag and be made either super-repellent or super-slippery.

One of the group’s most high-profile outputs has been their discovery of how to use vapour to harvest energy. When a water droplet is placed on a surface hotter than 100˚C it boils off to create steam, but when the surface is heated above a certain point, the water no longer evaporates fast. Instead it sits on a layer of its own vapour and levitates on top of the surface. This is a common scientific effect known as the Leidenfrost effect. The team used this effect with dry ice on top of a hot turbine-like surface during its sublimation phase – this is the point where a substance physically changes its state, transitioning directly from a solid to a gas. They were able to channel the vapour released by the dry ice and use it to rotate the turbine. Their findings were published by Nature Communications and could be used to generate power in extreme environments.

For more information, visit www.northumbria.ac.uk/smartmaterials

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    About Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) was named University of the Year 2017 at the Times Higher Education Awards, and Modern University of the Year in the Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide 2018. These awards recognise NTU for its high levels of student satisfaction, its quality of teaching, its engagement with employers, and its overall student experience.

    NTU has been rated Gold in the Government’s Teaching Excellence Framework – the highest ranking available.

    NTU is one of the largest UK universities. With 30,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across four campuses, the University contributes £900m to the UK economy every year. It is one of the UK’s most environmentally friendly universities, containing some of the sector’s most inspiring and efficient award-winning buildings. 96% of its graduates go on to employment or further education within six months of leaving.

    Our student satisfaction is high: NTU achieved an 88% satisfaction score in the 2018 National Student Satisfaction Survey. 
    The University is passionate about creating opportunities and its extensive outreach programme is designed to enable Nottingham Trent to be a vehicle for social mobility. NTU is among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    NTU is home to world-class research, and won The Queen’s Anniversary Prize in 2015 – the highest national honour for a UK university. It recognised the University’s pioneering projects to improve weapons and explosives detection in luggage; enable safer production of powdered infant formula; and combat food fraud.

    With an international student population of over 3,000 from around 100 countries, the University prides itself on its global outlook

£700k award funds new research into ways to control liquid droplets

Published on 29 January 2019
  • Subject area: Sciences including sport sciences
  • Category: Press office; School of Science and Technology

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