Ice, Cubed: Ohio State Researchers Set Record On Recreating Atmospheric Ice

Aug 8, 2017

In what scientists are hailing as a potential breakthrough for studying climate change models, a team led by an Ohio State University researcher has set a record for creating cubic ice crystals, which typically exist in the coldest clouds and are extremely difficult to make on Earth.

Barbara Wyslouzil, project leader and professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State, says most ice here on the ground is hexagonal in nature and very easy to make.

“Cubic ice is an alternative, and people looking at phenomena in the atmosphere thought that certain phenomena could only be explained by this other kind of ice," she says.

Wyslouzil says their form of cubic ice could improve computer models that analyze how ice crystals interact with sunlight and the atmosphere.

Making that cubic ice, though, was no small feat.

She says researchers had to make very small water droplets, then cool them very quickly to see what kind of ice formed.

“We have a special piece of equipment where we take water vapor and a carrier gas, and we expand it really fast," Wyslouzil says. "And that makes the droplets. And those droplets continue to cool at about a million degrees a second."

The project was only possible because of equipment that makes such small water droplets. She says even in micron-sized droplets, water typically cannot be cooled below -40 degrees Celcius.

An x-ray image shows ice crystals created by Ohio State researchers with a near-perfect cubic arrangement of water molecules.
Credit Ohio State University

While Wyslouzil and her team are not the first researchers to make cubic ice in a lab setting, they appear to have created the purest form. Because cubic ice is so unstable, the best anyone has ever previously done is ice that was about 70 percent cubic and 30 percent hexagonal.

In a paper published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letter, Wyslouzil’s team claims their ice is nearly 80 percent cubic.

"Anything we can do to get information on the phases of water that are stable under different conditions gives people an opportunity to test their understanding of what’s basically the most important molecule on Planet Earth," Wyslouzil says.