This incredibly simple IR experiment is about putting a piece of paper above a cup of room temperature (nearly) water (Figure 1). I hear you saying, what is the big deal of it? You have probably done that several times in your life, for whatever reasons.
If you happen to have an IR camera and you watch this process through it, you may be surprised. Many of you know that water in an open cup is slightly cooler ( 1-2°C lower) than room temperature because of evaporative cooling: constant evaporation of water molecules from liquid water takes thermal energy away from the cup and causes it to be a bit cooler than the room temperature (which is why you feel cold when you just step out of a swimming pool). You may think that the paper would also cool down when you put it on top of the water because at room temperature paper is a bit warmer than the water in the cup and, based on what your science teacher in high school has told you, heat would flow from the warmer paper to the cooler water, causing the temperature of the paper to drop a bit.
|Figure 2 (Watch it in YouTube)|
|Figure 3 (Watch it in YouTube)|
|Figure 4: Sensor results.|
But wait, this is not the end of the story!
If you keep observing the paper, you will see that this condensation warming effect will diminish in a few minutes (Figure 3). This trend is more clearly shown in Figure 4 in which the temperature of the paper was recorded for ten minutes using a fast-response surface temperature sensor. What the heck happened?
|Figure 5 (Watch it in YouTube)|
|Figure 6 (Watch it in YouTube)|
|Figure 7 (Watch it in YouTube)|
When will the paper cool down?
Returning to the original purpose of my experiment (looking for cooling due to heat transfer), can we find a situation in which we will indeed see cooling instead of warming? Yes, if the water is cold enough (Figure 7). When the water is cold, the evaporation rate drops. There will be less water molecules hitting the surface of the paper. The energy gain from weaker condensation warming cannot compensate the energy loss due to the heat transfer between the paper and the cold water. (By the way, I think the heat transfer in this case is predominantly radiative, because air doesn't conduct heat well and natural convection acts against heat transfer in this situation.)
What if the paper has been atop the water for a long time?
|Figure 8 (Watch it in YouTube)|
If you leave the paper atop the cup of water (water slightly cooler than room temperature, not ice water) for a few hours and you come back to examine it, you would probably be surprised again: The paper is now cooler than room temperature (Figure 8). I wouldn't be surprised if you are totally confused now: This warming and cooling business is indeed quite complicated -- even though everything we have done so far has been limited to manipulating paper and water. To keep the story short, I will tell you that this is because water molecules have traveled through the porous layer of the paper through capillary action and shown up on the other side of the paper (this molecular movement is often known as percolation). Their evaporation from the upper side of the paper cools down the paper. The building science guys among us can use this experiment to teach moisture transport through materials. Can the temperature of the upper side be somehow used to gauge the moisture vapor transmission rate (MVTR) of a porous material? If so, this may provide a way to automatically measure MVTR of different materials. The American Society for Testing and Materials already has established a standard based on IR sensors. Perhaps this experiment can be related to that.
Different materials have different dew points?
|Figure 9 (Watch it in YouTube)|
|Figure 10 (Watch it in YouTube)|
What will happen if we add some salt (or baking soda or sugar) to the water? Figure 10 shows that the condensation warming effect becomes weaker. For our chemist friends, this is known as vapor pressure depression. The salt ions do not evaporate themselves, but their presence in a solution somehow slows down the evaporation of water molecules.
A vapor column?
What will happen if the paper approaches the water from a different angle such as in the vertical direction? How does the shape of the water vapor distribution above a cup of water look like? Does it look like a steam from a cup of coffee? Figure 11 could probably give you some clue.
What about alcohol?
|Figure 11 (Watch it in YouTube)|
|Figure 12 (Watch it in YouTube)|
Even if this is a lengthy article (and thanks for making it to the end), I am pretty sure that the scientific exploration does not stop here. There are other questions that you can ask yourself. For me, I have been intrigued by the fascinating thermodynamic cycles in a humble cup of water and have been wondering if they could be used to engineer something that can harvest the latent heats of evaporation and condensation. In other words, could we turn a cup of water into a tiny power plant to, say, charge my cell phone? In theory, this is possible as any temperature gradient, however weak it may be, can be translated into electric current using a thermoelectric generator based on the Seebeck effect. The evaporation of water molecules from an open cup is a free gift of entropy from Mother Nature that ought to be harnessed some day.