Scientists accidentally create new form of ice not expected to exist

Cal Jeffrey

Posts: 3,793   +1,212
Staff member
In brief: Researchers at University College London (UCL) and Cambridge discovered a new form of ice. It is not naturally created on Earth but may exist on the icy moons of gas giants. It is just one of 23 types of H2O ice scientists have discovered and has properties that fundamentally change our understanding of water's "solid" state.

Although water is a fundamental building block of life and covers over 70 percent of Earth's surface, it has many anomalous properties that even modern science has not reconciled. For example, under immense pressure, water becomes easier to compress. This property is inverse to any other substance.

"Water is the foundation of all life," said University College London (UCL) Chemistry Professor Christoph Salzmann. "Our existence depends on it, we launch space missions searching for it, yet from a scientific point of view it is poorly understood."

After all, another strange property of water is that as it cools, it becomes dense. This increased density causes cold water to sink below its warmer molecules. Both of these characteristics are normal. However, water reaches peak density at only 4 degrees Centigrade, just above freezing. Then as it nears 0C and begins to form ice crystals, it becomes less dense and rises, which is why ice floats. This trait is unique to water, which is why scientists are so interested in its solid forms.

The study of water's solid phase has led to scientists discovering over 20 types of ice. There are 20 crystalline forms and two amorphous types — high-density (HDA) and low-density (LDA). Scientists discovered LDA in the 1930s when they exposed water vapor to a steel sheet chilled to -100C. Fifty years later, they found they could create HDA by compressing ice at nearly -200C.

Both of these forms of water are found in space because there is not enough thermal activity to form crystalline ice. The closest they exist on Earth is in the upper atmosphere. The gap in density suggests there should be a middle ground, but scientific consensus chalked it up to just another weird property of water.

"There is a huge density gap between [high-density and low-density amorphous ice], and the accepted wisdom has been that no ice exists within that density gap," said Salzmann.

However, Salzmann, Dr Alexander Rosu-Finsen, and a team of other scientists from UCL and Cambridge created a new form of amorphous ice in the lab that resides in the gap between HDA and LDA. They call it "medium-density amorphous ice," or MDA.

The researchers found it somewhat accidentally when they put regular ice through a ball milling process at -200C just to see what would happen (above). The result was an entirely new H2O phase that looks more like water than ice at the molecular level (below). The white powdery substance will move to the touch, like water, but is dense enough to hold its shape, like ice. It actually has the same density as water without being liquid.

Dr Rosu-Finsen explains that the ball milling process pulverized the ice crystals, transforming them into an amorphous mass.

"We shook the ice like crazy for a long time and destroyed the crystal structure," he said. "Rather than ending up with smaller pieces of ice, we realized that we had come up with an entirely new kind of thing, with some remarkable properties."

Co-author of the study, Professor Andrea Sella, added, "We have shown it is possible to create what looks like a stop-motion kind of water. This is an unexpected and quite amazing finding."

One of the more interesting anomalous properties of MDA is that as it "thaws," it reforms into crystalline ice — a process that releases an "extraordinary" amount of heat. The researchers theorize that this could be what causes "icequakes" on Jupiter's moon Ganymede.

The team published its research in the February 2 issue of Science. The MDA discovery will undoubtedly lead to more study of this peculiar form of ice.

Permalink to story.


Cal Jeffrey

Posts: 3,793   +1,212
Staff member
What is really fascinating about this stuff is that it is the same density as water. You can poke it and it gives your finger (or maybe a stick since it's so cold) the same resistance as water. You can stir it around and it feels the same as water. The only difference is that when you stop moving it, it stops and retains its last shape instead of collapsing back into a pool as water does. Strange stuff.

Avro Arrow

Posts: 3,635   +4,680
"However, water reaches peak density at only 4 degrees Centigrade, just above freezing."

The 1980s called and they want their word back. People say "Celsius" now. :laughing:


Posts: 390   +254
Cold fusion is not dangerous, in any theory.
Well, not dangerous in itself. But plentiful cheap energy? Some people don't think humans can be trusted with it. And it's true that it would make it easier to make some kinds of messes; but, on the other hand, it would also make it possible to clean many of our messes up.


Posts: 1,435   +997
Oops! From the National Institute of Standards and Technology:

....""degree centigrade" is no longer the correct unit term for temperature in the metric system; it has been replaced by degree Celsius. "

Two points.
A. Just because a term is replaced does not make it, or it's use, incorrect.
B. The NIST is not the end-all-be-all of the english language, nor temperature measurement descriptions. Many well trusted, well respected and highly regarded institutions of science and higher learning still use many terms and descriptions the US government does not.

Anything more you like to add?


Posts: 529   +360
Speaking of new forms of water, the "Ice-Nine" in Vonnegut's 'Cat's Cradle' was terrifying beyond belief.
This was my initial thought - they are gonna mess around and accidentally create Ice-9 and then we are all screwed.


Posts: 1,435   +997
In this case, it does.
Your opinion, not supported by evidence.
Name one which still uses "centigrade".
I'll name 10. Oxford, Sanford, Harvard, MIT, LANL, NASA, UCLA Riverside, MVLMSU, FUB and CalTech. All of these institutions use and acknowledge "Centigrade" as an acceptable use of the metric temperature description. And those are just the ones I personally know about.

You were saying?


Posts: 7,802   +860
TS Special Forces
ZedRM and Endymio, please discontinue your personal, off topic argument. Take it to PM if you feel you must continue. Thank you.


Posts: 460   +377
Anyone else saw the reflective ball in the ice and naturally assumed that was the new substance?

The science of cocktail making has made a great leap forwards. The rest of us, not so much.