As reported in 1756 by Johann Gottlob Leidenfrost, volatile liquids on hot solids form “gleaming drops resembling quicksilver”, a consequence of their levitation on a vapour cushion1,2. This makes the drops spectacularly mobile, moving away as soon as they are deposited—an observation commonly attributed to gravity or surrounding airflows. This mobility has been exploited to manipulate drops, because tiny forces such as those generated on asymmetric substrates can move them in well-defined directions3,4,5, a situation that also provides heat evacuation6. Here we report that Leidenfrost droplets initially at rest on horizontal substrates self-rotate and self-propel in the direction they are rolling, in the absence of any source of asymmetry or external force. Their rapid internal flow is found to be accompanied by a tilting of their base, which creates a permanent ratchet-like mechanism, entraining the rolling liquid despite the fact that it is not in contact with its substrate.
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We thank C. Frot for her help in designing the set-up, J. Quintela Casal for preliminary experiments and C. Josserand and É. Pirot for fruitful discussions.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Supplementary Information, Supplementary Figures 1–10
Side view of the experiment shown in Fig. 1 slowed down by a factor of 40. A water drop with radius R = 1.10 mm is dispensed from a needle at the centre of a hot wafer (T = 350 °C). Tracers (predispersed in the liquid) reveal an internal rolling motion before and after the drop detaches from the needle and self-propels in the rolling direction, like a liquid wheel
Animation associated with Fig. 1c,d showing top-view trajectories of drops with radii R = 1.0 mm (left), R = 1.5 mm (centre) and R = 2.0 mm (right) sped up by a factor 20. The surface is a 10-cm-diameter reflective wafer heated at T = 300 °C. The grey zone on the bottom right is hidden by the needle and experimentally inaccessible. Drops with radius R = 1 mm all self-propel after detachment with straight, isotropic trajectories. In stark contrast, drops with R = 2 mm follow roughly straight trajectories in a biased direction. In between (R = 1.5 mm)—that is, on the brink of the onset of self-propulsion—drops move away along the biased direction but can turnaround and adopt a random propelling direction.
Internal motion in a Leidenfrost drop (R = 2.5 mm) slowed down by a factor of 10 (corresponding to Fig. 3a). The drop is immobilized in a groove heated at T = 350 °C and illuminated with a 400-µm-thick laser sheet. Tracers rise up along the interface and pursue by a downward motion along the drop centre.
Internal motion in a Leidenfrost droplet (R = 1.1 mm) slowed down by a factor of 25 (corresponding to Fig. 3b). The drop is immobilized by a needle on a flat wafer heated at T = 360 °C and illuminated with a laser sheet. The droplet rolls with an angular velocity of 85 rad s–1 and the flow is found to be stable in time.
Surface flows of a Leidenfrost drop viewed from the top throughout its life played in real time. A puddle (R ≈ 3.5 mm) is initially deposited in a groove heated at T = 350 °C. Hydrophobic tracers standing at the interface draw convective chaotic patterns that tend to organize into a four-cell symmetric structure. For R ≈ 1.8 mm, drop vibrations intensify and the symmetry breaks. Then, the drop starts to roll. Rolling persists until tracers saturate and form a static solid shell at the surface. The white bar indicates 2 mm.
Simultaneous PIV and interferometric visualization of the bottom interface of a Leidenfrost droplet (R = 0.73 mm) slowed down by a factor of ten (corresponding to Fig. 4a). The drop is immobilized by a needle on a transparent sapphire heated at T = 300 °C. Tracers near the surface move along the symmetry axis Ox of the interference pattern, showing a correlation between the inner flow in the drop and the deformation of the vapour cushion. The drop detaches at the end of the video, and the contact zone (that is, the drop) is found to accelerate along the Ox-direction—that is, in the direction of the tilt of the bottom interface. We also observe a few oscillations caused by the detachment. The white bar indicates 200 µm.
Side view of a submillimetric droplet levitating on a plate heated at 340 °C and disturbed by vertical oscillations. The black bar indicates 1 mm, and the video is slowed down by a factor of 100. A perturbation of the drop’s vertical position changes heat exchange and generates surface waves propagating from the bottom of the drop, likely to disturb the drop dynamics after detachment.
Side view of a water drop levitating on a plate heated at 350 °C observed with an infrared camera using a calibration range from −40 °C to 150 °C, only suitable for water, and not brass. The bar indicates 5 mm, and the video is sped up by a factor of 3.2, while the right-handed lateral colour bar gives access to the surface temperature of the drop.
Top view of a large puddle (R ≈ 4 mm) levitating on a Glaco-coated unpolished silicon wafer heated at 200 °C. The video is sped up by a factor of 20. The restricted mobility at the beginning can be accounted for adhesion of water on such surfaces, resulting from intermittent contact with roughness. Once the drop radius becomes millimetric, water suddenly chooses one direction and promptly leaves the substrate.
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Bouillant, A., Mouterde, T., Bourrianne, P. et al. Leidenfrost wheels. Nature Phys 14, 1188–1192 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41567-018-0275-9
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