Learn more about what happens when ice changes phases from ultra-elastic, frozen microfibers. One day, they will be usable even in the coldest places on Earth – or outside the Earth.
Xin Guo, an optical researcher and group at Zhejiang University in China, has been working with silica microfibers for 20 years. This research team was the first to grow microfibers resulting in flexible ice. A study on this has been published in the journal Science
Ice is known to be a fragile material, mainly due to imperfections in its crystalline structure. However, scientists still do not fully understand what happens at the molecular level when ice turns into water, and vice versa. However, the optical properties of the new ultra-elastic ice microfibers may reveal new insights. chamber was cooled to about -50 degrees Celsius ahrenheit. According to Guo, this is colder than that used in any other previous experiment of this kind. The team then used an electric field to attract water vapor to the tip of the needle. As the vapor froze there, it formed a microfibre about 5 micrometers in diameter and about 1 millimeter long.
“This is a very thin and very short, high-quality ice microfiber with a uniform structure,” said Limin Tong, an optical researcher at Zhejiang University and co-author of the study. The researchers then further reduced the temperature of the fiber to between -70 and -150 degrees Celsius. When they tried to bend, they found that their experiment had worked. The fiber thus obtained can be bent to a maximum deformation of 10.9 percent, which is far more than conventional ice is normally capable of and is close to the theoretical maximum elasticity of 15 percent of ice that no one has come close to. In addition, the fiber bounces back to its original shape.
“It’s like some kind of magic. Usually we don’t have perfect ice crystals. Now we’ve got a kind of microfiber material with a very uniform character,” Tong said of the first attempt to bend the material.
Bending ice can also be very useful. The researchers sent light through the ice microfiber, which is very pure, and found that it works just as well as silica fibers, which are often used to transmit information through light. According to Guo and Tong, these types of fibers could also be used to detect viruses or other microbes by placing small organisms on the microfibers and passing light through them to learn more about the concentration, density or types of microbes that may be present.
In the future, the team will also work on building sensors that are compatible with flexible ice. Of course, this fiber melts at roughly -10 degrees Celsius, which means it can’t be used in many situations. “This is a very commonly used temperature in laboratories. Researchers working in the Arctic or in space could benefit from the inherently low temperature,” says Tong.
Perhaps most importantly, the light transmitted through these frozen fibers could help researchers study what happens when ice changes phases. Since the phase change can be caused simply by bending the microfiber, we can learn more about how ice crystals form, why they form the way they are, and what molecules are involved in this. For now, the next step is to determine if you can create longer ice microfibers.
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