Fuck Yeah Fluid Dynamics

Celebrating the physics of all that flows. Ask a question, submit a post idea or send an email. You can also follow FYFD on Twitter and Google+. FYFD is written by Nicole Sharp, PhD.

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What happens to a liquid in a cold vacuum? Does it boil or freeze? These animations of liquid nitrogen (LN2) in a vacuum chamber demonstrate the answer: first one, then the other! The top image shows an overview of the process. At standard conditions, liquid nitrogen has a boiling point of 77 Kelvin, about 200 degrees C below room temperature; as a result, LN2 boils at room temperature. As pressure is lowered in the vacuum chamber, LN2’s boiling point also decreases. In response, the boiling becomes more vigorous, as seen in the second row of images. This increased boiling hastens the evaporation of the nitrogen, causing the temperature of the remaining LN2 to drop, the same way sweat evaporating cools our bodies. When the temperature drops low enough, the nitrogen freezes, as seen in the third row of images. This freezing happens so quickly that the nitrogen molecules do not form a crystalline lattice. Instead they are an amorphous solid, like glass. As the residual heat of the metal surface warms the solid nitrogen, the molecules realign into a crystalline lattice, causing the snow-like flakes and transition seen in the last image. Water can also form an amorphous ice if frozen quickly enough. In fact, scientists suspect this to be the most common form of water ice in the interstellar medium. (GIF credit: scientificvisuals; original source: Chef Steps, video; h/t to freshphotons)

When water droplets sit on a cold substrate, they freeze into a shape with a pointed tip. At first glance, this behavior seems very odd since surface tension usually acts to prevent such sharp protrusions. The shape is, however, a result of water’s expansion as it freezes. The droplet freezes from the substrate upward, with a concave shape to the solidification front. The angle of the point does not depend on the substrate temperature or the wetting angle between the water and surface. Instead, it turns out that this concave front shape and water’s expansion are the key factors that determine the pointed cusp’s angle, and that the final geometry of the cusp is essentially universal. (Video credit: M. Nauenberg; additional research credit: A. Marin et al.)

Snowflakes aren’t the only frozen crystals to play with outside in the winter. Photographer Angela Kelly recently posted a series of frozen soap bubbles made by her and her son. In temperatures well below freezing, the thin film of the soap bubble does not survive long before it begins to freeze. The bubbles do not freeze all at once; instead the frost creeps gradually across it. For bubbles sitting on a surface, the ice front expands upward, much the same as with a freezing water drop. Once frozen, the bubbles crack or rip when touched instead of melting and popping. (Photo credit: A. Kelly; via BoredPanda; submitted by jshoer)

Just about everyone wishes for a White Christmas, but even when that happens, it’s rare to get a good look at the beauty of individual snowflakes. Alexey Kljatov’s macro photography of snowflakes is simply stunning and highlights the incredible variety of forms snowflakes take. A snowflake forms when a water droplet freezes onto dust or other particles and grows as more water vapor freezes onto the initial crystal. The symmetry of the snowflakes, as with any crystal, comes from the internal order of its water molecules. The shape and features that form vary due to the local temperature and humidity level while vapor is freezing onto the crystal. Check out this handy graph showing which shapes form for various situations. Since snowflakes can encounter wildly different conditions on their path to the ground, it’s rare or next-to-impossible to find any two alike. Join us all this week at FYFD as we look at holiday-themed fluid dynamics. (Photo credit: A. Kljatov)

The time-lapse video above shows the growth of icicles of various compositions under laboratory conditions. Many icicles in nature exhibit a rippling effect in their shape, which some theories attribute to an effect of lower surface tension in some  liquids. Here researchers show the icicle growth of three liquids: pure distilled water, and water with two concentrations of dissolved salt. They found that lowering the surface tension of the freezing liquid with non-ionic surfactants (i.e. not salt) did not produce ripples, but that dissolved ionic impurities like salt strongly affected the growth of ripples. They posit that this may be due to constitutional supercooling, in which growth of the solid-liquid interface is destabilized by the preferential concentration of impurities near the interface. (Video credit: A. S. Chen and S. Morris)

Reader kylewpppd asks:

Have you seen the post of a man in Siberia throwing boiling water off of his balcony? Can you provide a better explanation of what’s going on?

As you can see in the video (and in many similar examples on YouTube), tossing near boiling water into extremely cold air results in an instant snowstorm. Several effects are going on here. The first thing to understand is how heat is transferred between objects or fluids of differing temperatures. The rate at which heat is transferred depends on the temperature difference between the air and the water; the larger that temperature difference is the faster heat is transferred. However, as that temperature difference decreases, so does the rate of heat transfer. So even though hot water will initially lose heat very quickly to its surroundings, water that is initially cold will still reach equilibrium with the cold air faster. Therefore, all things being equal, hot water does not freeze faster than cold water, as one might suspect from the video.

The key to the hot water’s fast-freeze here is not just the large temperature difference, though. It’s the fact that the water is being tossed. When the water leaves the pot, it tends to break up into droplets, which quickly increases the surface area exposed to the cold air, and the rate of heat transfer depends on surface area as well! A smaller droplet will also freeze much more quickly than a larger droplet.

What would happen if room temperature water were used instead of boiling water? In all likelihood, a big cold bunch of water would hit the ground. Why? It turns out that both the viscosity and the surface tension of water decrease with increasing temperature. This means that a pot of hot water will tend to break into smaller droplets when tossed than the cold water would. Smaller droplets means less mass to freeze per droplet and a larger surface area (adding up all the surface area of all the droplets) exposed. Hence, faster freezing!

If you find yourself some place really cold this holiday season, may I suggest stepping outside and having some fun freezing soap bubbles? The crystal growth is quite lovely, as seen in this photograph. If you live in warmer climes, fear not, you can always experiment in your freezer. It would be particularly fun, I think, to see how a half-bubble sitting on a cold plate freezes in comparison to a droplet like this one. (Video credit: Mount Washington Observatory)

Thermodynamics can play strange games with liquids.  Here a bottle of chilled soda water is used to demonstrate a method of rapid freezing.  Because the water is at a higher pressure than atmospheric, its temperature can be lower than the normal freezing point in a standard atmosphere.  This is why the soda water remains a liquid in the bottle.  However, when the bottle is opened, the pressure drops and the water’s temperature is too low to remain a liquid, so it rapidly freezes in the bottle. A similar mechanism may be at work below Antarctic glaciers. As the internal flow beneath the ice sheet forces water up submerged mountainsides, the pressure drops, causing the water to freeze into new ice at the bottom of the glacier. 

Fluid mechanics at the microscale can behave quite differently than in our everyday experience. Microfluidic devices—sometimes known as labs on a chip—are becoming increasingly important in research and daily life. For example, the test strips used by diabetics to check their blood sugar levels are microfluidic devices.  In this video, researchers use a microfluidic channel to observe the freezing of supercooled water droplets. As the droplet first passes into the cold zone of the channel, it flash freezes, filling from the inside out with ice crystals. As it continues through the cold zone, the drop freezes fully, beginning at the outside surface and working inward. As it does so, the ice droplet fractures due to stresses. (Video credit: Stan et al)

In the frozen reaches of our planet, the atmosphere and ocean can interact in bizarre ways.  Under calm ocean conditions when the air at sea level is much colder than the water temperature brinicles—the underwater equivalent to an icicle—can form. The cold air above rapidly freezes ocean water at the surface, concentrating water’s salt content into a very cold brine which sinks rapidly. As this brine descends, it freezes the water around it into an ice sheath. As the brinicle grows and eventually reaches the sea floor, its cold temperatures can wreak havoc on the creatures living there.