How Everything Works
How Everything Works How Everything Works

Water, Steam, and Ice
Page 3 of 10 (98 Questions and Answers)

716. If you have a glass of water that is real cold but not frozen, can the addition of one normal ice cube make it all freeze? Can I do this in the kitchen? - D
The answer to both questions is yes. If you begin with very pure, dust-free water in a very clean glass, you should be able to supercool it below its normal freezing temperature of 32° F (0° C). That's because water has difficulty forming the initial seed crystals upon which ice can grow. If you then add an ice crystal to the supercooled water, it should begin to freeze rapidly. While I have never done this myself, it shouldn't be too hard. You should probably use distillated and filtered water and a brand new glass that you've cleaned thoroughly. Cover the water to keep out dust. Cool it carefully through 32° F in the freezer and then add a tiny ice chip. The water should begin to crystallize around that ice chip. A simpler example of this sudden freezing phenomenon is a heat pack—one containing sodium acetate. At room temperature, it contains a supercooled solution of sodium acetate that is unable to freeze spontaneously. When you press a button in the pack, you trigger the crystal formation and the whole pack freezes in seconds. The crystallization process releases enough thermal energy to keep the pack hot for hours. Incidentally, ski resorts regularly seed the water they use to make artificial snow with molecules that initiate crystal growth to avoid forming supercooled liquid. Doing so greatly enhances the amount of snow they make.

730. How do Eskimos burn fires in their igloos without melting the snow and/or ice that the igloos are built out of? I know they use holes in the top to vent the smoke and some heat, but what about the ambient heat? — AK, Bridgeport, CT
To avoid melting the ice, the Eskimos must keep the ice below its melting temperature. That means that they can't add heat to ice indefinitely. But while a central fire will always deliver some heat to the ice of the igloo, the ice of the igloo will also tend to lose heat to colder air outside. As long as the ice loses heat at least as fast as the fire delivers heat to it, the ice won't become any warmer and it won't melt. If heat loss to the outside is fast enough, it may be possible to have the air inside the igloo warmer than 32° F (0° F) and still have the ice remain colder and frozen. However, I'm sure that the average air temperature in the igloos can't be made much warmer than freezing without causing trouble. Still, the air right around the fire can be quite warm without threatening the walls. The area under the fire must be carefully insulated to avoid melting the underlying ice—which must continue to lose heat as rapidly as it arrives from the fire.

731. What happens to water in space? — DZ, Illinois
That depends on the water's temperature. At extremely low temperatures, ice remains stable indefinitely. That's why comets that are as old as the solar system have been able to hold on to their water despite having almost no gravity. But at more moderate temperatures, ice and water both slowly lose water molecules. These water molecules evaporate (or sublime, in the case of ice) and drift off into space. Because there's no air pressure in space to prevent evaporation from occurring inside the body of water, water will actually boil at any temperature. That's what boiling is: evaporation into steam bubbles located inside the water. Atmospheric pressure normally smashes these bubbles as long as the water temperature is below 212° F (100° C), but in empty space the bubbles form without opposition at any temperature.

732. When ice placed in water melts, does the overall volume of water increase, stay the same, or decrease? — AB, Riverside, CA
The volume decreases. That's because ice at 32° F (0° C) is less dense than water at that same temperature. As the ice melts to form water, the density of its molecules increases and the overall volume of material decreases. This situation, in which the solid form of a material is less dense than the liquid form of that material, is virtually unique in nature and explains why ice floats on water.

757. Is there any way to make a homemade fog machine, like they use in clubs? — JW, Westport, CT
While it's pretty clear that fog machines fill the air with tiny water droplets, I'm not sure how all of them work. Some probably use high-frequency sound waves to break up water into tiny droplets and then blow these droplets into the room with a fan. That technique is used in some room humidifiers and you can see a stream of fog emerging from them as they operate. An easier way to make fog is to mix water and liquid nitrogen. While liquid nitrogen is harder to find, all you have to do is put them together and they'll start making fog. The boiling nitrogen shatters the water into tiny droplets, which flow out of the mixture in a layer of cold nitrogen gas.

770. How does a dehumidifier know when to turn on and off? The one I bought from Sears doesn't use the "wet-bulb/dry-bulb" method (of which I could use a better understanding, too). How does its on-off switch work? — JS, Amherst, NY
Most humidity sensing switches or "humidistats" use the expansion or contraction of certain materials to measure humidity. The more humid the air is, the more water molecules there will be in those materials and their shapes and sizes will be affected. For example, human hair becomes longer when wet and it makes an excellent humidity sensor. On a dry day, a hair will contain relatively few water molecules and its length will be shorter. On a humid day, the hair will contain more water molecules and its length will be longer.

A wet-bulb/dry-bulb system measures humidity by looking at the temperature drop that occurs when water evaporates. As water evaporates from the bulb of the wet thermometer and the bulb's temperature drop, the rate at which water molecules leave the bulb's surface decreases. The bulb temperature drops until the rate at which water molecules leave the bulb is equal to the rate at which water molecules return to the bulb from the air. At that point, there is no net evaporation going on. In humid air, water molecules return to the bulb more often so that this balance is reached at a higher temperature than in dry air. The wet bulb temperature is thus warmer on a humid day than it is on a dry day.

784. Is it true that you can get lead poisoning in your home more easily from hot water than from cold water? — WH, Erial, NJ
Yes, assuming that your home has either lead pipes or copper pipes that were joined with lead-containing solders. That's because lead compounds are more soluble in hot water than they are in cold water. The amount of lead that was permitted in pipe solders has diminished over the years until now, when pipe solders can't contain any lead at all. While very little lead actually leaches out of the solder joints and enters the water, the effect is slightly more significant in hot water pipes than in cold water pipes. That's why it's recommended that you not use water from hot water pipes in cooking.

803. At times a very thin invisible layer of ice forms on road surfaces. The road surface appears dry and does not have the telltale reflections of ice. Many people refer to this as "black ice." How is this ice formed? What are the crystal properties that make it invisible? - BK
Black ice is a layer of ice that is almost free of internal defects or air bubbles and that does not have a smooth surface. The absence of internal defects or air bubbles is what makes it transparent rather than white. Snow and crushed ice appear white because they contain countless tiny surfaces. Whenever light changes speed, as it does in going from ice to air or air to ice, some of that light reflects. Since snow and crushed ice contain many ice/air interfaces, they reflect light extensively and appear white. In contrast, black ice contains no internal ice/air interfaces and doesn't reflect any light from inside. Any light that makes it into the black ice goes all the way to the roadway. If the roadway reflects any of this light, it again passes unscathed through the black ice. The only evidence that the black ice exists at all comes from its surface, but here again the ice offers little that you can see. Since true black ice is microscopically rough, the small amount of light that reflects as it enters the ice from the air is reflected randomly in all directions. So little of that reflected light travels in any one direction that you can barely see it at all. Overall, black ice reflects so little light that you see only the roadway itself. While I am not sure, I think that it forms when moisture in the air condenses to dew on the roadway and then freezes into ice. Whatever process forms it must leave it almost without holes and therefore invisible.

804. How do stalactites and stalagmites form in caves? — GS, Conroe, TX
They form when various minerals come out of solution in water and crystallize on the surfaces of a cave. To understand how this process occurs, we must look at the interface between the water and the cave surface. Whenever water is in contact with a mineral surface, there is a chance that an atom of the surface will suddenly leave the surface and dissolve in the water. If there are atoms already dissolved in the water, there is also a chance that one of them will suddenly come out of solution in the water and attach to the surface. Atoms leave and return to cave surfaces all the time as water drips from the ceiling of a cave to its floor.

What is important for the growth of stalactites and stalagmites is that more atoms stick to the cave surfaces than leave those surfaces. That is exactly what happens and it does so because the water has already picked up more than enough dissolved atoms before it reaches the stalactite. Either because of temperature changes or because of evaporation, the water that runs across the cave roof and down the sides of a stalactite deposits more atoms on the stalactite's surface than it removes. The same goes for the stalagmite after the water drips down to the cave floor. As the atoms build up on the cave surfaces, the stalactites grow down and the stalagmites grow up.

805. How does reverse osmosis work? - MC
Normal osmosis in water is a process in which pure water flows through a semi-permeable membrane to dilute a concentrated solution on the other side. It is driven by statistics—it's much more likely for a water molecule on the fresh water side to pass through the membrane than it is for a water molecule on the concentrated solution side to pass through the membrane. There are simply more water molecules trying to cross the membrane from the fresh water side! In fact, water molecules will continue to flow from the fresh water side to the concentrated solution side until the solution has been highly diluted or an accumulation of pressure on the solution side slows the passage of water and brings it to a halt.

Reverse osmosis occurs when the pressure on the solution side is raised so high that the movement of water reverses directions. If you squeeze the concentrated solution hard enough, you can drive additional water molecules from that solution through the semi-permeable membrane and into the fresh water on the other side. The raised pressure on the solution changes the statistics, making it more likely for water molecules to go from the solution side to the fresh water side. This technique is used to purify water in homes and to desalinate water in desert countries.
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