Melting Snow and Ice

Posted by PITHOCRATES - February 5th, 2014

Technology 101

When Temperatures fall below Freezing Liquid Water turns into Solid Water

You know what the best thing about water is?  You don’t have to shovel it.  Well, that, and its life-giving properties.  Let’s face it.  We couldn’t survive without the stuff.  We couldn’t grow food.  We even couldn’t live without drinking water.  So perhaps its life-giving properties is the best thing about water.  But a close second would be that thing about not having to shovel it.

When it rains water soaks into our green areas.  It runs off driveways and sidewalks into green areas.  And into streets.  Where it runs off into a storm drainage system.  Which takes it to a river or lake.  The rain lets our gardens grow.  And any excess water conveniently just goes away.  We may have a puddle or two to slosh through.  But even those go away without us having to do anything.  Water is nice that way.  As long as the temperature is above its freezing point.

When the temperature falls below the freezing point of water bad things start to happen.  Liquid water turns into solid water.  And hangs around for awhile.  Accumulating.  On our driveways, sidewalks, porches and roads.  It’s pretty much everywhere we don’t want it to be.  Making it difficult to walk.  And drive.  We slip and fall a lot in it.  The sun may melt it a little during the day.  Creating puddles of water where the snow once was. But when the sun sets those puddles freeze.  And become even more slippery.  Making solid water more dangerous than liquid water.  So a big part of making it through winters in northern climes, then, is transforming solid water back into the liquid form.

Even though Bourbon melts Ice Cubes Bourbon would be a Poor Choice to melt Snow and Ice

All material can be in three different stages.  It can be a solid.  A liquid.  Or a gas.  What determines the phase of this material depends on a couple of things.  Mostly temperature and pressure.  And the chemical properties of the material.  At ambient temperature and pressure material typically exists stably in one phase.  Water, for example, is stable in the liquid phase on an 80-degree summer day.  Allowing us to swim in it.  While on a freezing February day it is stable in the solid phase.  Which is why we hold the Winter Olympics in February.  The cold temperatures give us the best solid water conditions.

If we raise the temperature of water we can turn it from a liquid to a gas.  We could also do this by lowering the ambient air pressure.  Such as putting it into a vacuum.  For a liquid remains a liquid as long as the vapor pressure (the tendency for particles to escape from the liquid they’re in) of the liquid is less than the ambient air pressure.  If we lower the ambient air pressure below the vapor pressure of the liquid we can lower the boiling point of that liquid.  This is why different liquids have different boiling points.  They have different vapor pressures.  Oxygen has a very high vapor pressure and requires a high pressure and cold temperature to keep oxygen in a liquid phase.

When we take ice cubes out of the freezer and add them to a glass of bourbon they melt.  Because the ambient temperature outside of the freezer is above the freezing point of water.  So the solid water changes its phase from solid to liquid.  It would follow, then, that pouring bourbon on snow and ice would help melt it.  Of course we don’t do that.  For wasting bourbon like that would be criminal.  Not to mention costly.  Even if you used the cheap stuff.  Making bourbon a poor choice for melting snow and ice.

Salt dissolves into a Brine Solution that lowers the Melting Point of Snow and Ice

We see that a material will change its phase at different temperatures and pressures.  Which is good to know.  But it doesn’t help us to melt snow and ice during winter.  For we can’t lower the atmospheric air pressure to lower the boiling and melting points of water.  And we can’t raise the ambient temperature above the melting point of water.  If we could our winters would probably be a lot more comfortable than they are now.  So because when we can’t change the air pressure or temperature of the ambient environment the snow and ice is in we do something else.  We use chemistry to lower the melting point of snow and ice.  And the most common chemical we use is salt.

To melt snow and ice salt needs heat and moisture.  The moisture comes from the snow and ice.  Or from the humidity in the air.  The heat comes from the warmth of the earth or air.  Heated by the sun.  It also comes from the friction between tires and the road.  When salt comes into contract with water and heat it dissolves into a brine solution.  And this brine solution has a much lower melting point than water.  Which in turn lowers the melting point of the snow and ice it comes into contact with.  Allowing it to be in the liquid phase at temperatures below freezing temperatures.  Melting that snow and ice so it can run off like rain water.

The warmer it is when it snows the quicker salt will melt that snow.  While the colder it is the longer it takes to melt.  If it gets too cold (around 15 degrees Fahrenheit) salt proves to be ineffective.  In temperatures below 15 degrees Fahrenheit other chemicals work better.  Such as calcium chloride.  But calcium chloride is more costly than sodium chloride (salt).  Ambient temperatures, time of day, sunny or cloudy, wind, etc., all determine the chemical to use.  And the amount of chemical to use.  They consider all of these factors (and more) before sending those ‘salt’ trucks out on the roads.  Allowing us to drive in the worst of winters just as we drive in the best of summers.  It may take more time.  And there may be a little more cussing.  But we still go to work, take our kids to school, go shopping, etc., when it snows.  Thanks to chemicals.  Chemistry.  And the people that put those chemicals and that chemistry to work.

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