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Five Interesting Facts About Ice

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

Ice is more amazing than you think

Ice is more amazing than you think

All About Ice

Oh, ice. That wonderful material for which we have such a deep appreciation. Yet I may just extend that love a little deeper. Let’s take a look at some surprising science behind ice that only increases its versatility and its wonder.

1. Burning Ice

How could such a thing as ice on fire even be possible? Enter the wonderful world of hydrates or ice structures that trap elements. They usually create a cage-like structure with the trapped material in the center. If you happen to get methane inside we have methane hydrates, and as anyone with methane experience will tell you it’s flammable. On top of this, the methane is trapped under pressure conditions, so when you have the hydrates under normal conditions then the solid methane is released as a gas and expands its volume by nearly 160 times. This instability is what causes methane hydrates to be difficult to study yet so intriguing to scientists as an energy source.

But researchers from NTNU’s Nanomechanical Lab as well as researchers from China and the Netherlands used computer simulations to circumnavigate this issue. They found that the size of each hydrate impacted its ability to handle compression/stretching, but not as you would expect. Turns out, smaller hydrates handle those stresses better – up to a point. Hydrates from 15 to 20 nanometers showed the maximum stress load with anything bigger or smaller than that being inferior. As for where you can find these methane hydrates, they can form in gas pipelines and naturally in continental ice shelves as well as below the surface of the ocean (Zhang “Uncovering”, Department).

Can ice burn?

Can ice burn?

2. Icy Surfaces

Anyone dealing with winter conditions knows the perils of slipping on ice. We counter this with materials to either melt the ice or give us additional traction, but is there a material that simply prevents ice from forming on the surface in the first place? Superhydrophobic materials are effective at repelling water rather well but are usually made with fluoride materials that are not great for the planet.

Research from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology has developed a different approach. They developed material that lets the ice form but then falls off easily under the slightest break at the micro to nanoscale. This comes from microscopic or nanoscale bumps along the surface that encourage the ice to crack under stress. Now combine this with similar holes along the surface and we have a material that encourages breaks (Zhang “Stopping”).

What makes ice so slippery?

What makes ice so slippery?

3. Slip n’ Side

Speaking of that slipperiness, why does that happen? Well, that’s a complicated topic because of all the different pieces of (mis)information floating about. In 1886, John Joly theorized that contact between a surface and ice generates sufficient heat via pressure to create water. Another theory predicts that friction between the objects forms a water layer and makes a reduced friction surface. Which one is right?

Recent evidence from researchers led by Daniel Bonn (University of Amsterdam) and Mischa Bonn (MPI-P) paints a more complex picture. They looked at frictional forces from 0 to -100 Celsius and compared the spectroscopic results to the theoretical. Turns out, there are two layers of water on the surface. We have water affixed to the ice via three hydrogen bondings and free-flowing water molecules that are “powered by thermal vibrations” of the lower water. As temperatures increase, those lower water molecules gain freedom to be top layer ones, and the thermal vibrations cause even faster movement (Schneider).

4. Amorphous Ice

Ice forms around 0 Celsius as water cools enough for the molecules to form a solid…sort of. Turns out, that’s true so long as perturbations exist for the excess energy to be dispersed so that the molecules slow enough. But if I take water and keep it very still, I can get liquid water to exist below ) Celsius. Then I can disturb it to create ice.

However, this isn’t the same kind we are used to. Gone is the regular crystalline structure and instead we have material similar to glass, where the solid is really just a tightly (tightly) packed liquid. There is a large-scale pattern to the ice, giving it hyperuniformity. Simulations conducted by Princeton, Brooklyn College, and the University of New York with 8,000 water molecules revealed this pattern, but interestingly the work hinted at two water formats – high-density and low-density varieties. Each would give a unique amorphous ice structure. Such studies may offer insights into the glass, a common but misunderstood material that also has some amorphous properties (Zandonella, Bradley).

5. Flexible Ice

Strange as it may seem, microscopic ice can have some bendability to it. Research from Zhejiang University was able to produce crystal ice-fibers between 10 micrometers to 800 nanometers in diameter. The key to flexibility lies in the purity of these crystals. Ice normally isn't structured as regularly as we think it is, leading to cracks and weak points. But these ice crystals were low in these faults and thus able to handle greater stresses than we are used to.

The manner of manufacture played a role too: The ice formed at -50 degrees C using a single-atom-thick tungsten needle with 2000 volts applied to ease water diffusion. Some evidence suggests crystals of this type may occur naturally, such as the Larsen C Ice Shelf in Antarctica, which seems to handle greater stresses on it than anticipated. How the mechanism for this special formation could occur remains up in the air (Conway).

Work Cited

Bradley, David. “Glass inequality.” Elsevier Ltd. 06 Nov. 2017. Web. 10 Apr. 2019.

Conway, Caroline. "When Breaking the Ice Isn't So Simple: The Phenomenon of Flexible Ice Crystals." Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science, 08 Aug. 2021. Web. 28 Sept. 2022.

Department of Energy. “Methane Hydrate.” Department of Energy. Web. 10 Apr. 2019.

Schneider, Christian. “The Slipperiness of Ice Explained.” innovations report, 09 May 2018. Web. 10 Apr. 2019.

Zandonella, Catherine. “Studies of ‘amorphous ice’ reveal hidden order in glass.” innovations report, 04 Oct. 2017. Web. 10 Apr. 2019.

Zhang, Zhiliang. “Stopping problem ice – by cracking it.” innovations report, 21 Sept. 2017. Web. 10 Apr. 2019.

---. “Uncovering the secrets of ice that burns.” innovations report, 02 Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2019.

© 2020 Leonard Kelley