Researchers can now treat a surface so that a droplet of mercury spreads out on it, instead of beading up. (Photo: MIT)

The wettability of a surface — whether drops of water or another liquid bead up or spread out when they come into contact with it — is a crucial factor in a wide variety of commercial and industrial applications, such as how efficiently boilers and condensers work in power plants or how heat pipes funnel heat away in industrial processes. This characteristic has long been seen as a fixed property of a given pair of liquid and solid materials, but now MIT researchers have developed a way of making even the most unlikely pairings of materials take on a desired level of wettability.

The new process is described in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper by MIT postdocs Kyle Wilke, Zhengmao Lu, and Youngsup Song and Professor of Mechanical Engineering Evelyn Wang.

Wettability is usually closely linked to the surface tension properties of a liquid — the higher the surface tension, the more likely the liquid is to form beads on a surface rather than spreading out to wet the surface. Mercury has exceptionally high surface tension and is therefore considered highly nonwetting, and so the team chose this notoriously difficult liquid for one of their demonstrations. They were able to produce a surface, made from a typically nonwetting material, that caused mercury to spread across it without a chemical reaction.

The new method is based on texturing the surface, regardless of its composition, with closely spaced indentations that have “reentrant openings” — that is, the opening at the top is narrower than the rest of the cavity, rather like a jar with a narrow mouth. This textured surface is pretreated with a liquid that fills all these cavities, leaving exposed areas of liquid in these openings across the surface, which alter the surface’s properties. When another liquid is added, which depending on the application may be the same or different from the one preloaded into the surface, its response to the surface is changed from nonwetting to wetting.

Surfaces that have a high wettability for water are known as hydrophilic, and those that are nonwetting for water are known as hydrophobic. Wettability or nonwettability is the generic term for such behavior regardless of the particular liquid involved.

While reentrant surfaces have been demonstrated before for other purposes, this work is the first to show that they can be used to alter the surface to produce “wetting regimes that have not been demonstrated before,” according to the team.

The findings are so new there may be many real-world applications that the team hasn’t thought of yet. One area that’s promising is in protective coatings. Many materials used to protect surfaces from harsh chemicals are fluorinated compounds that are nonwetting, which may make them unsuitable for many applications. Making those surfaces wetting could open up many new potential uses for such coatings. High-temperature heat pipes, used to conduct heat from one place to another, such as for cooling machinery or electronics, are another promising application.

While the complex surface indentations for this research were fabricated using semiconductor manufacturing processes, the team is exploring other ways of achieving the same kind of texturing using 3D printing or some other process that could more easily be scaled up for real-world applications.

For more information, contact Abby Abazorius at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.; 617-253-2709.