Project Aims to Improve Efficiency of Evaporation and Condensation in Critical Processes

TROY, N.Y. — Power generation, the heat in our homes, air-conditioning, even the manufacturing of some of the products we use each day rely on evaporation and condensation processes. Improving and controlling these phase-change phenomena could increase energy efficiency across a vast number of industries.

Shankar Narayanan, an assistant professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is leading a team that will be supported by a new NSF CAREER grant to study how evaporation and condensation processes can be improved or controlled at the micro level.

Specifically, the team is looking at what happens when nanomaterials or nanostructures are coated on a surface to control phase-change. Before now, researchers have only been able to see some of the effects these materials have on evaporation and condensation, but haven’t understood what’s happening at the microscale.

“Our understanding of the phase-change process could be much different from what’s taking place at the micro and nanoscales. Things like how this process can be delayed or advanced, or how quickly or slowly it takes place in the small scale, could be much different from the macroscale behavior,” Narayanan explained. 

In order to evaluate phase-change at the microscale level, the research team will use a novel technique it has developed. The technique combines an extremely sensitive piezoelectric mass and area-sensing mechanism that can sense a very small change in mass as a substance evaporates or condenses within micro and nanomaterials.

Narayanan hopes the team’s findings can guide multiple industries in choosing materials that will achieve the highest efficiency possible.

“Considering the scale at which we are generating power, or cooling data centers, for example, even a small improvement in phase-change could yield significant energy savings,” he said.

This research project also aims to increase the interest and participation of high school students in science, technology, engineering, and math. Working with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineering Ambassadors, Narayanan has developed ways to translate this concept into lessons that can be taught in regional high school classrooms or experienced in his laboratory. That work will continue as he and his team learn more about phase-change at a microscale.

Narayanan has also invited students from local community colleges to be part of his research team on campus. This work will allow that opportunity to continue.