Traces of surfactants can severely limit the drag reduction of superhydrophobic surfaces [Applied Physical Sciences]
Superhydrophobic surfaces (SHSs) have the potential to achieve large drag reduction for internal and external flow applications. However, experiments have shown inconsistent results, with many studies reporting significantly reduced performance. Recently, it has been proposed that surfactants, ubiquitous in flow applications, could be responsible by creating adverse Marangoni stresses. However, testing this hypothesis is challenging. Careful experiments with purified water already show large interfacial stresses and, paradoxically, adding surfactants yields barely measurable drag increases. To test the surfactant hypothesis while controlling surfactant concentrations with precision higher than can be achieved experimentally, we perform simulations inclusive of surfactant kinetics. These reveal that surfactant-induced stresses are significant at extremely low concentrations, potentially yielding a no-slip boundary condition on the air–water interface (the “plastron”) for surfactant concentrations below typical environmental values. These stresses decrease as the stream-wise distance between plastron stagnation points increases. We perform microchannel experiments with SHSs consisting of stream-wise parallel gratings, which confirm this numerical prediction, while showing near-plastron velocities significantly slower than standard surfactant-free predictions. In addition, we introduce an unsteady test of surfactant effects. When we rapidly remove the driving pressure following a loading phase, a backflow develops at the plastron, which can only be explained by surfactant gradients formed in the loading phase. This demonstrates the significance of surfactants in deteriorating drag reduction and thus the importance of including surfactant stresses in SHS models. Our time-dependent protocol can assess the impact of surfactants in SHS testing and guide future mitigating designs.
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