Surface topography plays an important role in promoting or suppressing localized condensation. In this work, we study the growth of water droplets on hydrophobic convex surface textures such as bumps and concave surface textures such as dimples with a millimeter scale radius of curvature. We analyze the spatio-temporal droplet size distribution under a supersaturation condition created by keeping the uniform surface temperature below the dew point and show its relationship with the sign and magnitude of the surface curvature. In particular, in contrast to the well-known capillary condensation effect, we report an unexpectedly less favorable condensation on smaller, millimeter-scale dimples where the capillary condensation effect is negligible. To explain these experimental results, we numerically calculated the diffusion flux of water vapor around the surface textures, showing that its magnitude is higher on bumps and lower on dimples compared to a flat surface. We envision that our understanding of millimetric surface topography can be applied to improve the energy efficiency of condensation in applications such as water harvesting, heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems for buildings and transportation, heat exchangers, thermal desalination plants, and fuel processing systems.
Controlling dropwise condensation is fundamental to water-harvesting systems, desalination, thermal power generation, air conditioning, distillation towers, and numerous other applications. For any of these, it is essential to design surfaces that enable droplets to grow rapidly and to be shed as quickly as possible. However, approaches based on microscale, nanoscale or molecular-scale textures suffer from intrinsic trade-offs that make it difficult to optimize both growth and transport at once. Here we present a conceptually different design approach—based on principles derived from Namib desert beetles, cacti, and pitcher plants—that synergistically combines these aspects of condensation and substantially outperforms other synthetic surfaces. Inspired by an unconventional interpretation of the role of the beetle’s bumpy surface geometry in promoting condensation, and using theoretical modelling, we show how to maximize vapour diffusion flux at the apex of convex millimetric bumps by optimizing the radius of curvature and cross-sectional shape. Integrating this apex geometry with a widening slope, analogous to cactus spines, directly couples facilitated droplet growth with fast directional transport, by creating a free-energy profile that drives the droplet down the slope before its growth rate can decrease. This coupling is further enhanced by a slippery, pitcher-plant-inspired nanocoating that facilitates feedback between coalescence-driven growth and capillary-driven motion on the way down. Bumps that are rationally designed to integrate these mechanisms are able to grow and transport large droplets even against gravity and overcome the effect of an unfavourable temperature gradient. We further observe an unprecedented sixfold-higher exponent of growth rate, faster onset, higher steady-state turnover rate, and a greater volume of water collected compared to other surfaces. We envision that this fundamental understanding and rational design strategy can be applied to a wide range of water-harvesting and phase-change heat-transfer applications.