Condensation on Superhydrophobic Surfaces: The Role of Local Energy Barriers and Structure Length Scale

Water condensation on surfaces is a ubiquitous phase-change process that plays a crucial role in nature and across a range of industrial applications, including energy production, desalination, and environmental control. Nanotechnology has created opportunities to manipulate this process through the precise control of surface structure and chemistry, thus enabling the biomimicry of natural surfaces, such as the leaves of certain plant species, to realize superhydrophobic condensation. However, this “bottom-up” wetting process is inadequately described using typical global thermodynamic analyses and remains poorly understood. In this work, we elucidate, through imaging experiments on surfaces with structure length scales ranging from 100 nm to 10 μm and wetting physics, how local energy barriers are essential to understand non-equilibrium condensed droplet morphologies and demonstrate that overcoming these barriers via nucleation-mediated droplet–droplet interactions leads to the emergence of wetting states not predicted by scale-invariant global thermodynamic analysis. This mechanistic understanding offers insight into the role of surface-structure length scale, provides a quantitative basis for designing surfaces optimized for condensation in engineered systems, and promises insight into ice formation on surfaces that initiates with the condensation of subcooled water.