A Moment of Science

Frost-Free Freezers And Sublimation

How does sublimation change the way ice cubes look?

Frost-free freezer

Photo: digitpedia (Flickr)

A frost-free freezer changes the way ice cubes sublimate.

Recently my wife found me with my head in the freezer.

“What are you doing?!,” she asked.

I said, “I’ve just been watching the ice cubes to see if any have sublimated yet.”

“Oh,” she said.

What Is Sublimation?

Sublimation” is when ice turns into a gas without passing through the usual intermediary liquid state.

If you leave your ice cubes in back of the freezer for a month or so, you might notice they start to shrink. That’s because they are sublimating: the ice is turning to water vapor even though it never melted.

Frost-Free Freezer

But I tried this experiment myself and my ice cubes never shrunk! All I got was a cold head!

Then a physicist explained to me that it only works if you have a frost-free freezer.

Huh?!

Why Is That?

It’s in the nature of sublimation. When we say that ice can turn into water vapor, what we mean is that fast-moving water molecules can actually fling themselves off the surface of the ice cube and into the surrounding air.

That’s what evaporation means. The more molecules that can free themselves of the ice this way, the more the ice has turned into vapor.

Molecules And Evaporation

But wait! In order to do that, the air around the ice cube can’t be saturated with water already. If it is, there’s no room for more molecules and evaporation can’t take place.

Frost-free freezers keep the air from becoming saturated so that it won’t freeze on the walls. But that also means ice-cubes can sublimate nonstop!

Stay Connected

What is RSS? RSS makes it possible to subscribe to a website's updates instead of visiting it by delivering new posts to your RSS reader automatically. Choose to receive some or all of the updates from A Moment of Science:

Support for Indiana Public Media Comes From

About A Moment of Science

Search A Moment of Science