Cold Weather Science Fun: Turn Boiling Water to Ice Crystals With a Flick of the Wrist

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Consider this the deep winter version of the Diet Coke-Mentos experiment:

  1. Take one very cold day. In our case, it was -2F when I awoke, although the temperature sensor (on the warm side of the house) was reading 8 above when we did this. We went to the back, where it was still shady and probably a bit colder.
  2. Add a compliant kid.
  3. Give him a mug of boiling water.
  4. Ask him to toss it up in the air.
  5. Roll camera (maybe this should be #3.5).

Here’s an even better demonstration:

And, after a bit of Googling, I finally found an explanation for what is happening:

All things being equal, cold water freezes faster.

It takes time for the energy contained in a hot object to be transferred to a cold object. However, the rate of heat transfer is proportional to the temperature difference between the two objects, so hot water will lose heat faster than cold water. In other words, if you have water at 90 degrees C and water at 10 degrees C and the freezer is at -10 degrees C, the hot water will lose heat five times faster than the cold water; however, the cold water will still win the race. As the hot water cools it’s rate of heat transfer will decrease, so it will never catch up to the cold water.

Some people claim that hot water freezes faster because a pot of boiling water can be thrown into the air on a cold winter day, and it freezes in mid air creating a shower of ice crystals. Whereas a pot of cold water thrown into the air comes down as large blobs of water. This happens because the hot water is so close to being steam, that the act of throwing it into the air causes it to break up into tiny droplets. (hot water is less viscous than cold water, listen to the sound it makes when you pour it in the sink) The small water droplets have a large surface area which allows for a great deal of evaporation, this removes heat quickly. And finally, the cooled droplets are so small, that they can be easily frozen by the winter air. All of this happens before the water hits the ground. Cold water is thicker and stickier, it doesn’t break up into such small pieces when thrown into the air, so it comes down in large blobs.
Joe Larsen, Ph.D. Chemistry, Rockwell Science Center, Los Angeles, CA

Kathy Ceceri also blogs at Home Biology.

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