Surface acoustic wave atomization is a rapid means for generating micron and submicron aerosol droplets. Little, however, is understood about the mechanisms by which these droplets form due to the complex hydrodynamic processes that occur across widely varying length and time scales. Through experiments, scaling theory, and simple numerical modeling, we elucidate the interfacial destabilization mechanisms that lead to droplet formation. Using a millimeter-order fluid drop exposed to surface acoustic waves as it sits atop a single-crystal lithium niobate piezoelectric substrate, large aerosol droplets on the length scale of the parent drop dimension are ejected through a whipping and pinch-off phenomenon, which occurs at the asymmetrically formed crest of the drop due to leakage of acoustic radiation at the Rayleigh angle. Smaller micron order droplets, on the other hand, are formed due to the axisymmetric breakup of cylindrical liquid jets that are ejected as a consequence of interfacial destabilization. The 10μm droplet dimension correlates with the jet radius and the instability wavelength, both determined from a simple scaling argument involving a viscous-capillary dominant force balance. The results are further supported by numerical solution of the evolution equation governing the interfacial profile of a sessile drop along which an acoustic pressure wave is imposed. Viscous and capillary forces dominate in the bulk of the parent drop, but inertia is dominant in the ejected jets and within a thin boundary layer adjacent to the substrate where surface and interfacial accelerations are large. With the specific exception of parent drops that spread into thin films with thicknesses on the order of the boundary layer dimension prior to atomization, the free surface of the drop is always observed to vibrate at the capillary-viscous resonance frequency—even if the exciting frequency of the surface acoustic wave is several orders of magnitude larger—contrary to common assumptions used in deriving subharmonic models resulting in a Mathieu equation for the capillary wave motion, which has commonly led to erroneous predictions of the droplet size.

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