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MSU Billings professors highlight cold-weather science

Boiling water into snow.PNG
Posted at 10:30 AM, Dec 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-23 12:30:43-05

BILLINGS — The cold weather might seem miserable, but it all depends on how you look at it. If you embrace it, you might be able to have some fun, especially with your kids.

Over at MSU Billings, the cold is cool.

"We’re going to go outside and throw some boiling water up into the air. As most people know, water cools down and then freezes, so it's maybe a strange idea to think that you can take actively boiling or very close to boiling water and it get it to more or less instantly freeze," said Daniel Willems, assistant professor of biochemistry at MSUB on Thursday.

"There’s lots of science that you can do when stuff gets really cold. A lot of it does have to do with phase changes and stuff changing. Usually here it's from liquid to solid of some sort because we’re removing energy from molecules," added Matt Queen, associate professor of chemistry at MSUB.

Queen and Willems make regular appearances on Montana This Morning on Q2, where they bring science to life. But they say these near-record low temps also provide the perfect science classroom.

The boiling water science trick is a cool yet simple experiment to try with your kids, capitalizing on the contrast between hot and cold.

"The key there is the more you can separate out those molecules, the faster the energy separates further from them. It’s not that they lose energy faster, but it gets separated from them faster. And the faster you can make that happen, the faster you can get it to freeze," added Willems.

"You’re constantly boiling off into the gas phase these hotter molecules. And then as soon as that happens, they don’t have time to separate into complete vapor and they freeze or condense down into that solid phase, really, really quickly," Queen added.

Both Willems and Queen said that while uncontrolled variables outside prevent concrete experiments, they do provide an opportunity for fun and potentially cool discoveries.

"What it does do, when it's this cold, you open up a whole bunch of experimental observations that you can make, like freezing bubbles," Queen said.

Despite being able to turn boiling water into snow, there needs to be caution.

"If you’re going to throw boiling water in the air, know that... you’re throwing boiling water that can hurt you in the air. It’s still boiling water when it comes down, a lot of it at least. It doesn’t come out of that cup freezing cold. Also, know that as you’re doing this, you’re probably making the ground at your feet covered in ice," added Willems.

They recommend using safety glasses and making sure you’re fully protected. And definitely toss the water as far away from you as you can.

While the weather seems too cold to be outside, opportunities for fun are still out there.

"When it gets this cold out, it’s not like this every day so you can do these wild things, like throwing the boiling water into the air and turning it into snow instantaneously," Queen added.