How Everything Works
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Water, Steam, and Ice
Page 2 of 10 (98 Questions and Answers)

551. How do you boil ice water? (I think it has something to do with a vacuum.) - MW
You're right, it does have to do with a vacuum. While water molecules can evaporate from the surface of liquid water at almost any temperature, boiling can only occur when the evaporation rate is high enough to support the appearance of evaporation bubbles inside the body of the liquid water. Normally, atmospheric pressure pushes inward on cold water so hard that any evaporation bubble that appears inside the water is immediately crushed out of existence. But in water that's at 100° C, evaporation is so rapid that the evaporation bubbles in the liquid water can survive and grow, despite the crushing inward forces of atmospheric pressure. The hot water boils.

Water boils not because it's hot but because any evaporation bubble that forms inside it is able to survive and grow despite the surrounding atmospheric pressure. At normal atmospheric pressure, the water does have to be hot for this to happen. But if you remove the atmospheric pressure, the water can boil at much lower temperatures. In fact, at sufficiently low pressures, even ice water will boil! It's funny to see ice cubes floating in a container of boiling water, but it happens when you remove the air from around the ice water.

554. How do I figure out how much energy is used to heat the water in our gas hot water heater? I know that 1 BTU is the energy to heat 1 lb. of water 1°. Do I figure out how many gallons in 1 lb. of water; and then multiply that by the difference in room temperature and 140°? — JH, Maple Grove, MN
Yes. A gallon of water weighs about 8.3 pounds, so a typical 40-gallon hot water heater tank holds 332 pounds of water. To raise that water from its delivery temperature (about 60° F) to its final temperature (about 140° F) takes about 26,560 BTUs.

567. Does hot water really freeze quicker than water at room temperature? — MH, Dallas, TX
In most cases the answer is no. All things being equal, the room temperature water will have a head start and will freeze first. The hot water must first cool down to room temperature and then it will simply follow the behavior of the room temperature water. However, in the special case where the water is held in an insulated container that's open at the top, it's possible for hot water to freeze faster. That's because evaporation of water molecules from the exposed surface of the hot water makes an important contribution to the cooling process in that case and a significant fraction of the water molecules will have left the container by the time it reaches room temperature. Since it takes less time to freeze a smaller quantity of water, the container of hot water can freeze before the container of room temperature water. However, there will be less ice in the container that was once filled with hot water.

There is another interesting effect that occurs when freezing hot water. If you boil water, you will drive most of the dissolved gases out of it. You see these gases emerge as bubbles on the sides of a pot as the water heats up when you put the pot on the stove. If you freeze boiled water, it will probably freeze slightly faster than unboiled water. That's because the dissolved gases also come out of solution during the freezing process and these gases form bubbles in the ice. These bubbles slow the flow of heat through the ice and delay the freezing of its center. Thus, while room temperature water will freeze quicker than hot water, previously boiled water that's now at room temperature will freeze even quicker than normal room temperature water. The boiled water will also form clearer ice cubes—they won't have any bubbles in them.

Finally, John Newell points out an interesting practical reason why hot water may sometimes freeze faster than cooler water in a household refrigerator—the temperatures of those refrigerators fluctuate because their thermostats have hysteresis. Once it has stopped operating, a refrigerator's compressor won't turn on again until the refrigerator temperature drifts upward significantly. If you put cool water in the refrigerator's freezing compartment, it may be quite a while before the compressor turns on and the refrigerator begins to pump heat out of the freezing compartment. But if you put hot water in the compartment, you may raise the temperature of the refrigerator enough to start the compressor, thus accelerating the freezing of the water.

568. How can you make a makeshift water distiller with common materials? - VL
To distill water, you need to condense steam on a cold surface and collect the condensate. You could boil water in a teapot and allow the steam flowing out of its mouth to pass across the underside of a clean metal bowl full of ice water. The steam would condense as pure distilled water on the outside of the bowl. If you then placed a clean cup under the metal bowl, the distilled water would drip into that cup.

647. How do I graph (line or pie) the time it takes different amounts of water to freeze? — LC, TX
First, you must determine what it is that you're really measuring. If you pour a gallon of water onto a huge copper plate that's been cooled to -200° C, the water will freeze in a fraction of a second while if you put a drop of water on a hot frying pan, it will never freeze at all. You must design a sensible experiment and then repeat it with several different amounts of water. The experiment should be sure to focus on the water by avoiding situations where external effects determine the freezing time. For example, you might obtain 4 identical 1-liter containers and fill them with 1/4, 2/4, 3/4, and 1 liter of the same water respectively and then put them simultaneously in a freezer with a uniform cold temperature. Then you can record how long it takes each of them to freeze. Then use an XY graph to plot these times: the x-axis could be the amount of water in the container and the y-axis could be the time it took for the water to freeze. The four points you'll obtain probably won't form a straight line. That's because the amount of heat that must leave the water for it to freeze depends on the water's volume and the time it takes that heat to leave depends on the water's surface area. Doubling the water's volume doesn't double its surface area, so the freezing time will have an interesting and somewhat complicated dependence on the water's volume. Try it!

664. Is there water on the moon? — JB, Edmonton, Canada
Recent radar studies of the moon's surface have indicated that water may be present at the bottoms of deep craters near the moon's north and south poles. Because sunlight never reaches into these craters, they have cooled by radiating their heat into the empty space overhead and are now extremely cold. They're so cold that water deposited there, probably by comet impacts, has remained as ice for millions of years. While the ice in your freezer slowly disappears because the water molecules sublime—become water vapor—at normal freezer temperatures, extremely cold ice barely sublimes at all and can exist in a vacuum almost indefinitely.

685. Why does water boil at lower or higher temperatures under varying atmospheric pressures? Do changing vapor pressures above a liquid play a role in changing boiling points of liquids? — KC, East Greenwich, RI
A liquid boils when its vapor pressure reaches atmospheric pressure. While a liquid will evaporate at temperatures below the boiling temperature, that evaporation only occurs from the surface of the liquid. That's because atmospheric pressure crushes any bubbles that try to form within the body of the liquid. Every once in a while, a few molecules of the liquid break free inside the liquid and form a bubble of gas. The pressure inside such a bubble is the vapor pressure of the liquid at its present temperature. If the liquid's temperature is below its boiling temperature, atmospheric pressure is greater than the pressure inside one of these spontaneous vapor bubbles and it crushes the bubble. But once the temperature of the liquid reaches the boiling temperature, the bubbles will have enough pressure to remain stable against atmospheric pressure. Each bubble that forms begins to float upward toward the top of the liquid and more molecules evaporate into it as it rises, so that it grows larger and larger.

If you lower atmospheric pressure, the liquid will boil at a lower temperature because the vapor pressure reaches atmospheric pressure more easily. If you raise atmospheric pressure, the liquid will boil at a higher temperature because the vapor pressure must rise higher before it reaches atmospheric pressure.

688. Do whales drink salted water? — GR, Montreal, Quebec
No. Marine mammals rely on water obtained from their food. Because they don't sweat, they only lose water through their urine, which they concentrate to minimize the loss of water. What little water these animals do need comes from eating foods that are already relatively low in salt. Most of the lower sea animals, including fish, have active systems—ones that consume ordered energy—for eliminating salt so that when a sea mammal eats one of the lower animals, it inherits that animal's relatively salt-free water. Moreover, metabolizing fats and carbohydrates produces water as a byproduct.

696. I suspect that the amount of water on the earth is constant and therefore cannot be used up. Is this true? If so, would it not follow that we don't need to worry about water conservation so much as water pollution? — AP, Kansas City, MO
While the number of water molecules on earth doesn't change very much, it isn't exactly constant. Water molecules are consumed in some chemical reactions (particularly photosynthesis in plants) and produced in other reactions (particularly the burning of petroleum). However, most of the water on our planet is mixed with salt and is therefore unsuitable for drinking. The amount of fresh water on earth is not constant and it can be used up. That's why both the conservation of fresh water and the control of water pollution are important.

710. What happens to the temperature of water when ice is added? — OS, Havana, FL
Whenever a glass contains a mixture of both ice and water, the temperature of its contents will be 32° F (0° C). That's because liquid water isn't stable below this temperature and solid ice isn't stable above this temperature. The two can coexist stably only at 32° F.

When you first mix the water and ice, the water is likely to hotter than 32° F and the ice is likely to be colder than 32° F. Heat flows from the water to the ice—from hotter to colder—and soon one of them reaches 32° F. While heat may then continue to flow from the water to the ice, the one that's at 32° F won't change temperature any more. Instead, it will begin to turn into the other form. For example, if the ice reaches 32° F first, it will begin to melt as heat flows into it and turn into water at 32° F. Or if the water reaches 32° F first, it will begin to freeze as heat flows out of it and turn into ice at 32° F. Pretty soon, both the ice and the water will be at 32° F and there they will remain so long as both are still present in the glass.

From a molecular standpoint, ice is an orderly crystalline solid in which the water molecules are neatly arranged in rows, columns, and stacks. Liquid water is a disorganized soup of water molecules that are regularly changing neighbors and moving about, though always in contact with one another. As you add heat to cold ice, its molecules jiggle more and more vigorously against one another until they finally begin to move about as liquid water, a process we call "melting." As you remove heat from warm water, its molecules move about less and less rapidly until they finally begin to cling permanently to one another as solid ice, a process we call "freezing."
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