Don’t expect anything philosophical or career-change-related. I am talking about water and its phase transition to ice because …
…the fact that a process so common and important as water freezing is not fully resolved and understood, is astonishing.
There are more spectacular ways of triggering this transition than just letting a tank of water cool down slowly: Following last winter’s viral trend, fearless mavericks turned boiling water vapor into snow flakes. Simply sublime desublimation?
Here is an elegant demo of Boiling water freezing in midair in the cold.
The science experiment took its toll: About 50 hobbyist scientists scalded themselves, ignoring the empirical rule about spraying any kind of liquid against wind direction:
“I accidentally threw all the BOILING water against the wind and burnt myself.”
Can it really be desublimation of water vapor? The reverse of this process, sublimation, is well known to science fiction fans:
Special effects supervisor Alex Weldon was charged with devising a way to realistically recreate the look of pools of steaming milky water that had been at the location. He concocted similar liquid with evaporated milk and white poster paint, mixed with water and poured into the set’s pools. Steam bubbling to the top was created with dry ice and steam machines, passed into the water via hidden tubing.
Dry ice is solid carbon dioxide, and it is the combination of temperature and atmospheric pressure on planet earth that allow for the sublimation of CO2. The phase diagram shows that at an air pressure of 1 bar and room temperature (about 293 K = 20°C) only solid and gaseous CO2 can exist:
On the contrary, the phase diagram of water shows that at 1 bar (= 100 kPa) the direct transition from vapor to ice is the is not an option. Following the red horizontal 1-bar-line you need to cross the green realm of the liquid phase:
But experiments show that the green area seems to be traversed in the fraction of a second – and boiling water seems to cool down much faster than colder water!
It seems paradoxical as more heat energy need to be removed from boiling water (or vapor!) to cool it down to 0°C. The heat of vaporization is about 2.300 kJ/kg whereas the specific heat of water is only 4 kJ/kgK.
I believe that the sudden freezing is due to the much more efficient heat transfer between the ambient air and vapor / tiny droplets versus the smaller heat flow from larger droplets to the air.
Mixing water vapor with air will provide for the best exposure of the wildly shaking water molecules to the slower air molecules. If not-yet-vaporized water droplets are thrown into the air, I blame the faster freezing on water’s surface tension decreasing with increasing temperature:
Surface tension indicates the work it takes to create or maintain a surface between different phases or substances. The internal pressure inside a water droplet is proportional to surface tension and inverse proportional to its radius. This follows from the work against air pressure needed to increase the size of a droplet. Assuming that droplets of different sizes will be created with similar internal pressures, the average size of droplets will be smaller for higher temperatures.
A cup of water at 90°C will be dispersed into a larger number of smaller droplets and thus a bigger surface exposed to air than a cup at 70°C. The liquid with the lower surface tension will evaporate more quickly.
One more twist: If droplets are created in mid air, as precipitates from condensation or desublimation, it takes work to create their surfaces – proportional to surface tension and area. On the other hand, you gain energy from these processes – proportional to volume. If the surface tension is lower but the area is larger the total volume is the same – and thus the net effect in terms of energy balance might be the same. But arguments based on energy balance only don’t take into account the dynamic nature of this process, far off thermodynamic equilibrium: The theoretical energy gain can only be cashed in (within the time frame we are interested in it) if condensation or freezing or desublimation is actually initiated – which in turn depends in the shape and area of the surface and on nuclei for droplets.
Heat transfer is of course more efficient for a larger temperature differences between air and water; perhaps that’s why the trend started in Siberia.
I have for sure not discussed any phenomenon involved here. Even hot water kept in a vessel can cool down and freeze faster than initially cooler water: This is called the Mpemba effect, a phenomenon known to our ancestors and rediscovered by the scientific community in the 1960s – after a curious African student refused to believe that his teachers called his observations on making ice cream ‘impossible’. The effect is surprisingly difficult to explain!
In 2013 an Mpemba effect contest had been held and the paper quoted at the top of this post was the winner (out of 22.000 submissions!). Physical chemist Nikola Bregovic emphasizes the impact of heat transfer and convection: Hot water is cooled faster due to more efficient heat transfer to the environment. Stirring the liquid will disturb convective flows inside the vessel and can prevent the Mpemba effect.
The effect could also be due to different spontaneous freezing temperatures of supercooled water. Ice crystals can start to grow instantly at a temperature below the theoretical freezing point.
Various parameters and processes – such as living organisms in the water or heating water to higher temperatures before! – might destroy or create nucleation sites for ice crystals. Supercooling of vapor might also allow for a jump over the green liquid area in the phase diagram, and thus for deposition of ice from vapor even at normal pressures.
Quoting Bregovic again:
I did not expect to find that water could behave in such a different manner under so similar conditions. Once again this small, simple molecule amazes and intrigues us with it’s magic.~