An Experimental Study on Micro-Hydrodynamics of Evaporating/Boiling Liquid Film

Abstract: Study of liquid film dynamics is of significant importance to the understanding and control of various industrial processes that involve spray cooling (condensation), heating (boiling), coating, cleaning and lubrication. For instance, the critical heat flux (CHF) of boiling heat transfer is one of the key parameters ensuring the efficiency and safety of nuclear power plants under both operational and accident conditions, which occurs as the liquid layers (microlayer and macrolayer) near the heater wall lose their integrity. However, an experimental quantification of thin liquid film dynamics is not straightforward, since the measurement at micro-scale is a challenge, and further complicated by the chaotic nature of boiling process. The object of present study is to develop experimental methods for the diagnosis of liquid film dynamics, and to obtain data for the film instability under various conditions. A dedicated test facility was designed and constructed where micro conductive probes and confocal optical sensors were used to measure the thickness and dynamic characteristics of a thin liquid film on various heater surfaces, while a high speed camera was used to get visual observation. Extensive tests were performed to calibrate and verify the two thickness measuring systems. The micro conductive measuring system was proven to have a high reliability and repeatability with maximum system error less than 5µm, while the optical measuring system is capable of recording the film dynamics with spatial resolution of less than 1 mm. The simultaneous measurement on the same liquid film shows that the two techniques are in a good agreement with respect to accuracy, but the optical sensors have a much higher acquisition rate up to 30 kHz, which are more suitable for rapid process. The confocal optical sensors were therefore employed to measure the dynamic thickness of liquid films (ethanol, hexane and water) evaporating on various horizontal heater surfaces (aluminum, copper, silicon, stainless steel and titanium) to investigate the influences of heat flux, the surface and liquid properties on the film instability and the critical thickness. The critical thickness of water film evaporating on various surfaces was measured in the range of 60-150 mm, increasing with the increased contact angle or increased heat flux (evaporating rate) and also with the decreased thermal conductivity of the heater material. The data suggest the conjugate heat transfer nature of the evaporating liquid film dynamics at higher heat fluxes of interest to boiling and burnout. In the case of hexane on the aged titanium surface with contact angle of ~3o, the liquid film is found resilient to rupture, with film oscillations at relatively large amplitude ensuing as the averaged film thickness decreases below 15 µm. To interpret our experimental findings on liquid film evolution and its critical thickness at rupture, a theoretical analysis is also performed to analyze the dynamics of liquid films evaporating on heater surfaces. While the influences of liquid properties, heat flux, and thermal conductivity of heater surface are captured by the simulation of the lubrication theory, influence of the wettability is considered via a minimum free energy criterion. The thinning processes of the liquid films are generally captured by the simulation of the lubrication theory. For the case with ideally uniform heat flux over the heater surface, the instability of the liquid film occurs at the thickness level of tens micro meters, while for the case of non-uniform heating, the critical thicknesses for the film rupture are closer to  the experimental data but still underestimated by the lubrication theory simulation. By introducing the minimum free energy criterion to considering the influence of surface wettability, the obtained critical thicknesses have a good agreement with the experimental ones for both titanium and copper surfaces, with a maximum deviation less than ±10%. The simulations also explain why the critical thickness on a copper surface is thinner than that on a titanium surface. It is because the good thermal conductivity of copper surface leads to uniform temperature distribution on the heat surface, which is responsible for the resilience of the liquid film to rupture. A silicon wafer with an artificial cavity fabricated by Micro Electronic Mechanical System (MEMS) technology was used as a heater to investigate the dynamics of a single bubble in both a thick and thin liquid layer under low heat flux (<60 kW/m2). The maximum departure diameter of an isolated bubble in a thick liquid film was measured to be 3.2 mm which is well predicted by the Fritz equation. However, in a thin liquid layer with its thickness less than the bubble departure diameter, the bubble was stuck on the heater surface with a dry spot beneath. A threshold thickness of the liquid film which enables the dry spot rewettable was obtained, and its value linearly increases with increasing heat flux. In addition, another test section was designed to achieve a constant liquid film flow on a titanium nano-heater surface which helps to successfully carry boiling in the liquid film from low heat flux until CHF. Again, the confocal optical sensor was employed to measure the dynamics of the liquid film on the heater surface under varied heat flux conditions.  A statistical analysis of the measured thickness signals that emerge in a certain period indicates three distinct liquid film thickness ranges: 0~50 µm as microlayer, 50~500 µm as macrolayer, 500~2500 µm as bulk layer. With increasing heat flux, the bulk layer disappears, and then the macrolayer gradually decreases to ~105 µm, beyond which instability of the liquid film may lose its integrity and CHF occurs. In addition, the high-speed camera was applied to directly visualize and record the bubbles dynamics and liquid film evolution. Dry spots were observed under some bubbles occasionally from 313 kW/m2 until CHF with the maximum occupation fraction within 5%.  A dry spot was rewetted either by liquid receding after the rupture of a bubble or by the liquid spreading from bubbles’ growth in the vicinity. This implies that the bubbles’ behavior (growth and rupture) and their interactions in particular are of paramount importance to the integrity of liquid film under nucleate boiling regime.