Researchers Create Better Way to Boil Water, Controlling Bubbles

University engineers have discovered a way to induce and control the formation of boiling-water bubbles, which could benefit electronics, as well as have applications in advanced lasers, radars, and solar energy.

3 Min Read
Researchers Create Better Way to Boil Water, Controlling Bubbles

To most people, boiling water is a means to an end—it helps us make a cup of tea or prepare pasta for dinner. But engineers at Oregon State University have a slightly different perspective on this process—a scientific one—which led them to discover a new way to induce and control the formation of the bubbles that form when water boils.

The work by a team in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University could have applications that range from industrial-sized boilers to advanced electronics, they said.

“Bubble nucleation control, growth, and departure dynamics is important in understanding boiling phenomena and enhancing nucleate boiling heat transfer performance,” Chih-hung Chang, a professor of electrical engineering in the OSU College of Engineering, told Design News in an interview. “We were inspired by prior research that use mixed wettability surface to enhance heat transfer from a number of leading research groups.”

The method Chang and his team developed could be useful in two ways: either to boil water and create more steam, such as in a boiler or in a steam iron, or to release heat more readily while working at a cooler temperature, which could be a helpful characteristic for an electronic device.

Oregon State University engineers have discovered a new way to induce and control the formation bubbles formed when boiling water. The work could have applications that range from industrial-sized boilers to advanced electronics.

“One of the key limitations for electronic devices is the heat they generate, and something that helps dissipate that heat will help them operate at faster speeds and prevent failure,” he said of the latter application. “The more bubbles you can generate, the more cooling you can achieve.”

The method could also help large appliances like boilers see efficiency gains by creating steam at a lower surface temperature, Chang said.

“This technology could potentially improve electronic cooling and steam boilers for energy and home appliances,” he said. It also could be useful for making new boiler plates for evaporator and distillation that were commonly used in chemical industry, Chang added.

The approach researchers came up with is based on the use of piezoelectric inkjet printing, which they used to create hydrophobic polymer “dots” on a substrate. They then deposited a hydrophilic zinc oxide nanostructure on top of that, which only grows in the area without dots. Researchers achieved control and manipulation of the formation of the bubbles by controlling both the hydrophobic and hydrophilic structure of the material.


The technology researchers developed allows them for the first time to control not only the boiling but also the condensation process, as well as other aspects of the bubbling that happens when water boils. Those include spatial bubble nucleation sites, the frequency of bubble onset and departure, heat transfer coefficient, and critical heat flux.

While it sounds almost comical that researchers would be interested in controlling bubbles, the impact their research has on technology and scenarios in which it’s necessary to dissipate heat levels is potentially huge, they said. In addition to boilers and electronics, the finding could have applications for advanced lasers, radars, and in some types of solar energy, researchers said.

Elizabeth Montalbano is a freelance writer who has written about technology and culture for more than 15 years. She has lived and worked as a professional journalist in Phoenix, San Francisco, and New York. In her free time she enjoys surfing, traveling, music, yoga and cooking. She currently resides in a village on the southwest coast of Portugal.

About the Author(s)

Elizabeth Montalbano

Elizabeth Montalbano has been a professional journalist covering the telecommunications, technology and business sectors since 1998. Prior to her work at Design News, she has previously written news, features and opinion articles for Phone+, CRN (now ChannelWeb), the IDG News Service, Informationweek and CNNMoney, among other publications. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she also has lived and worked in Phoenix, Arizona; San Francisco and New York City. She currently resides in Lagos, Portugal. Montalbano has a bachelor's degree in English/Communications from De Sales University and a master's degree from Arizona State University in creative writing.

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