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Disney Movie 'Frozen' Inspires Discovery Of New Property Of Supercooled Water

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Inspired by YouTube videos and the Disney film Frozen, a scientist in New York has successfully discovered an amazing new property of supercooled water.

Matthew M. Szydagis, an assistant professor at University at Albany, State University of New York, watched several videos of people supercooling water in a bottle and then banging it so that it freezes.

When Szydagis saw the same process happen in Disney's Frozen, it further solidified how he understood supercooled water.

What Is Supercooling?

Szydagis explained the process of supercooling. If clean water that is low on impurities, such as dust particles, is placed in a smooth enough container, it can be cooled down below its freezing point of 0 degrees Celsius or 32 degrees Fahrenheit without freezing.

This process of supercooling is similar to how water can be superheated in the microwave, said Szydagis. Water can be heated above its boiling point without actually boiling. Supercooling is the reverse.

When water is either superheated or supercooled, it ends up in a state called "metastability," which is neither unstable nor stable, said Szydagis.

He explained that disturbance can trigger the phase transition, freezing, and crystallization. In fact, supercooling is not ordinary freezing because it forms snow instead of clear ice.

New Property Of Supercooled Water

The researchers in this study cooled liquid water to as low as -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit) inside the lab without freezing.

Szydagis explained that this process is not the same as freezing water at point depression, which happens when sidewalks are salted because the water used in this study was pure and had no impurities.

They demonstrated that certain forms of particles hitting the water can cause it to freeze subatomically if the water is supercooled first. Some particles such as neutrons can scatter multiple times within the water.

The team was able to show this supercooling process not only with commercially available sources of particles, but also through a Fiestaware "radio-active red" plate with orange uranium-based paint from nearly 70 years ago.

Based on the supercooled water, Szydagis and his team created a new detector called the "snowball chamber," which matches well with "cloud" and "bubble" chambers. These are technologies from the early to mid-20th century and they use condensation and boiling.

Although supercooled water is not new, Szydagis and his team managed to find out that some particles such as neutrons actually trigger freezing. In the end, the team was able to create a new detector of fundamental particles.

Applications For The Detector Of Supercooled Water

Szydagis also explained that his research on supercooled water is influenced by his continuous search for dark matter, which is a form of matter that has been indirectly observed through its gravitational effects. It forms a significant fraction of the universe.

"We have yet to uncover direct, conclusive and unambiguous evidence of it within the lab," he said. With this research, the new detector they created might also be able to detect dark matter, because neutrons are thought to emulate it, he added.

The scientific implications of the new study are huge because it can be used to detect nuclear weapons in cargo for homeland security, it can also understand cloud formation, and it can provide clues as to how certain mammals hibernate by supercooling their blood.

Details of the new study will be presented by Szydagis at the meeting of the American Physical Society in Denver.

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