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Investigating the 'Mpemba Effect': Can Hot Water Freeze Faster than Cold Water?

Difficulty
Time Required Average (6-10 days)
Prerequisites Careful attention to the details of your experimental method are required for this project.
Material Availability Specialty items
Cost Average ($40 - $80)
Safety Adult supervision recommended for heating water and handling hot water.

Abstract

This physics project seems like it should have an easy answer. Instead, it turns out to be a great illustration of why it is important to base scientific conclusions on the outcome of controlled experiments. Things don't always turn out as we expect!

Objective

The goal of this project is to investigate the question, "Can hot water freeze faster than cold water?" Thorough background research, a precise formulation of the hypothesis, and careful experimental design are especially important for the success of this experiment.

Credits

Andrew Olson, Ph.D., Science Buddies

Sources
  • Jeng, M., 2005. "Hot Water Can Freeze Faster Than Cold?!?" PhysicsarXiv:physics/0512262, v1 (29 Dec 2005) [accessed March 20, 2007] http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/physics/pdf/0512/0512262v1.pdf.
  • Walker, J. 1977. "The Amateur Scientist: Hot Water Freezes Faster Than Cold Water. Why Does It Do So?" Scientific American 237 (3): 246-257.

Cite This Page

MLA Style

Science Buddies Staff. "Investigating the 'Mpemba Effect': Can Hot Water Freeze Faster than Cold Water?" Science Buddies. Science Buddies, 3 Oct. 2014. Web. 21 Nov. 2014 <http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Phys_p032.shtml>

APA Style

Science Buddies Staff. (2014, October 3). Investigating the 'Mpemba Effect': Can Hot Water Freeze Faster than Cold Water?. Retrieved November 21, 2014 from http://www.sciencebuddies.org/science-fair-projects/project_ideas/Phys_p032.shtml

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Last edit date: 2014-10-03

Introduction

It may seem counterintuitive, but folk wisdom and a body of published evidence agree that, under some conditions, warmer water can freeze faster than colder water (for an excellent review on the subject, see Jeng, 2005).

This phenomenon has been known for a long time, but was rediscovered by a Tanzanian high school student, Erasto Mpemba, in the 1960s. He and his classmates were making ice cream, using a recipe that included boiled milk. The students were supposed to wait for the mixture to cool before putting it in the freezer. The remaining space in the freezer was running out, and Mpemba noticed one of his classmates put his mixture in without boiling the milk. To save time and make sure that he got a spot in the freezer, Mpemba put his mixture in while it was still hot. He was surprised to find later that his ice cream froze first (Meng, 2005).

When Mpemba later asked his teacher for an explanation of how his hotter ice cream mixture could freeze before a cooler one, the teacher teased him, "Well all I can say is that is Mpemba physics and not the universal physics" (quote in Jeng, 2005). Mpemba followed his curiosity and did more experiments with both water and milk, which confirmed his initial findings. He sought out an explanation for his findings from a visiting university professor, Dr. Osborne. Work in Dr. Osborne's lab confirmed the results, and Mpemba and Osborne described their experiments in a published paper (Mpemba and Osborne, 1969).

Since Mpemba and Osborne's paper was published many scientists have tried to replicate their findings. In some cases people have seen the Mpemba effect, in other cases the hotter water does not freeze faster. Today most scientists consider the Mpemba effect to be a real phenomena but the variability in results has sparked a great deal of debate over what specific conditions are needed to see the effect and why it occurs. How can it be that hot water freezes faster than colder water? Somehow, the hot water must be able to lose its heat faster than the cold water. In order to understand how this could happen, you will need to do some background research on heat and heat transfer. Here is a quick summary, so that you can be familiar with the terms you will encounter. Heat is a measure of the average molecular motion of matter. Heat can be transferred from one piece of matter to another by four different methods:

  • conduction,
  • convection,
  • evaporation, and
  • radiation.

Conduction is heat transfer by direct molecular interactions, without mass movement of matter. For example, when you pour hot water into a cup, the cup soon feels warm. The water molecules colliding with the inside surface of the cup transfer energy to the cup, warming it up.

Convection is heat transfer by mass movement. You've probably heard the saying that "hot air rises." This happens because it is less dense than colder air. As the hot air rises, it creates currents of air flow. These circulating currents serve to transfer heat, and are an example of convection.

Evaporation is another method of heat transfer. When molecules of a liquid vaporize, they escape from the liquid into the atmosphere. This transition requires energy, since a molecule in the vapor phase has more energy than a molecule in the liquid phase. Thus, as molecules evaporate from a liquid, they take away energy from the liquid, cooling it.

Radiation is the final way to transfer heat. For most objects you encounter every day, this would be infrared radiation: light beyond the visible spectrum. Incandescent objects—like light bulb filaments, molten metal or the sun— radiate at visible wavelengths as well.

In addition to researching heat and heat transfer, you should also study previous experiments on this phenomenon. The review article by Monwhea Jeng (Jeng, 2005) is a great place to start. The Jeng article has an excellent discussion on formulating a testable hypothesis for this experiment.

Another excellent article, if you can find it at your local library, is by Jearl Walker, in the September, 1997 issue of Scientific American (Walker, 1977). Walker measured the time taken for various water samples to cool down to the freezing point (0°C), not the time for them to actually freeze. He measured the temperature of the water using a thermocouple, which could be placed at various depths in the beaker. Whether you use a thermocouple or a thermometer, it is important that the sensing portion of the device (thermocouple itself, or the bulb of the thermometer) be immersed in the water in order to get accurate readings. Walker used identical Pyrex beakers for his water samples, since they could go from the stove to the freezer without breaking. He used a metal plate over the stove burner to distribute the heat evenly to the beakers as they were heating. He heated the beakers slowly, and he also kept the beakers covered while heating, so that water that evaporated during heating would be returned to the beaker. Walker notes that "You cannot obtain accurate readings by first heating some water in a teakettle, pouring the water into a beaker already in the freezer and then taking a temperature reading. The water has cooled too much by then" (Walker, 1997, 246). Walker also reported that the air temperature in his freezer was between −8 and −15°C. He advises, "To maintain a consistent air temperature be sure to keep the freezer door shut as much as possible" (Walker, 1977, 246). For further details on his experimental procedure and findings, see the original Scientific American article.

The graph in Figure 1 shows some of Walker's data. The x-axis shows the time it took for the sample to reach 0°C (in minutes). The y-axis shows the initial temperature of the sample (in °C). The graph shows data from six separate experiments (a-f), each with a different symbol:

  1. 50 ml water in small beaker, non-frost-free refrigerator (black squares),
  2. 50 ml water in large beaker, non-frost-free refrigerator (red circles),
  3. 50 ml water in large beaker, frost-free refrigerator (green triangles),
  4. 100 ml water in large beaker, thermocouple near bottom (blue triangles),
  5. 100 ml water in large beaker, covered with plastic wrap, thermocouple near bottom (light blue diamonds),
  6. 100 ml in large beaker, thermocouple near top (magenta triangles).
Under some conditions (b, d, f), he found that samples that were initially hotter reached 0°C faster than samples that were initially cooler, confirming Mpemba's results. Under other conditions (a, e), hotter samples took as long or longer than cooler samples to reach 0°C. The results for experiment c are equivocal—it's difficult to say whether the time differences are significant or not. This kind of variability is one of the things that has intrigued people about the Mpemba effect and makes it so interesting to experiment with.
Redrawing of results from Walker, 1977.

Figure 1. Some of Walker's results (Walker, 1977). For details, see text.

In this science project you will investigate the Mpemba effect for yourself. Will the conditions in your experiment lead to hot water or cold water freezing first? Make sure to thoroughly do your background research, formulate your hypothesis, and keep careful notes about your experimental design. This is also a great project to take time to systematically try different variables, like starting temperatures, tap water versus deionized water, humidity, and just about any other environmental factor you can think of! Who knows, maybe your data will help contribute to a greater understanding of the Mpemba effect.

Terms and Concepts

To do this project, you should do research that enables you to understand the following terms and concepts:
  • Mpemba effect
  • Heat transfer
  • Conduction
  • Convection
  • Evaporation
  • Radiation
  • Phase change
More advanced students may also want to study:
  • Supercooling
  • Nucleation sites for initialization of crystal formation

Questions

  • How does your freezer work to make things colder?
  • What are some of the mechanisms that have been proposed to explain the Mpemba effect?
  • How would you design an experiment to test one of the proposed explanations?
  • Is the Mpemba effect always observed?

Bibliography

  • For a news-type article on the subject, see:
    Ball, P., "Does Hot Water Freeze First?" Physics World April, 2006 [accessed March 19, 2007] http://physicsweb.org/articles/world/19/4/4.
  • This review by Monwhea Jeng should be considered essential reading for this project:
    Jeng, M., 2005. "Hot Water Can Freeze Faster Than Cold?!?" PhysicsarXiv:physics/0512262, v1 (29 Dec 2005) [accessed March 20, 2007] http://arxiv.org/PS_cache/physics/pdf/0512/0512262v1.pdf.
  • This Scientific American article has data from actual experiments and includes details of the experimental methods used. It is highly recommended :
    Walker, J. 1977. "The Amateur Scientist: Hot Water Freezes Faster Than Cold Water. Why Does It Do So?" Scientific American 237 (3): 246-257.
  • This is the article that renewed interest in the phenomenon, and gave it the name "the Mpemba effect:"
    Mpemba, E.B. and D.G. Osborne, 1969. "Cool?" Physics Education 4:172-175.
  • For contrary views, see this article and the references in it:
    Nave, C.R., 2006. "Hot Water Freezing," HyperPhysics, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Georgia State University [accessed March 19, 2007] http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/thermo/freezhot.html#c1.

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Materials and Equipment

A project kit containing most of the items needed for this science project is available for purchase from AquaPhoenix Education. Alternatively, you can gather the materials yourself using this shopping list:
  • Identical Pyrex beakers for holding water; beakers should hold 100 mL or more
  • Metal plate or stove burner to distribute heat evenly
  • Cover for the beaker during heating
  • Two thermometers
  • Freezer (or other means for cooling water below freezing point)
  • Stove (or other means of heating the water)
  • Hot mitt
  • Gram scale, such as the Fast Weigh MS-500-BLK Digital Pocket Scale, 500 by 0.1 G, available from Amazon.com
  • Clock or timer

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Experimental Procedure

  1. Do your background research so that you are knowledgeable about the terms, concepts and questions, above. You should also do as much research as possible on previous experiments related to this phenomenon. The articles by Jeng and Walker (Jeng, 2005; Walker, 1977) are highly recommended.
  2. Choose 4 or more initial temperatures to test, and follow the same standard procedure for each initial temperature. For example:
    1. Measure a chosen volume of water (e.g., 50 ml) into a Pyrex beaker.
    2. Cover the beaker so that water vapor will be captured and returned.
    3. Heat the water to the desired initial temperature.
    4. Quickly weigh the beaker and water and then place in the freezer.
    5. Monitor the temperature at regular intervals, and record how long it takes for the temperature to reach 0°C.
    6. Weigh the beaker and water at the end of the experiment to see how much water evaporated while it was in the freezer. (You can let the beaker warm up, so that there is no condensation on it, but keep it covered so that water does not evaporate.)
    7. Repeat the experiment at least three times for each chosen initial temperature.

Troubleshooting

For troubleshooting tips, please read our FAQ: Investigating the 'Mpemba Effect': Can Hot Water Freeze Faster than Cold Water?.

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Variations

There are many possible explanations for the Mpemba effect which you could choose to explore. You can think of your own variation on this experiment, or explore one or more of these variables:
  • the method used for freezing, (e.g.: freezer compartment of your refrigerator, rock salt and ice bath, dry ice and alcohol bath, walk-in freezer, outdoors in sub-freezing weather),
  • the method used for controlling evaporation, (e.g.: either covering the containers, or adding a layer of oil on top of the water should reduce evaporation),
  • container material, size, and shape,
  • endpoint of the experiment: wait for freezing solid instead of reaching 0°C.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

If you are having trouble with this project, please read the FAQ below. You may find the answer to your question.
Q: What if my metal plate is getting red on the stove?
A: That means that the plate is reaching around 1000°F, which is extremely hot! If you see the metal plate getting red, turn down the stove to a lower temperature. You won't need that much heat to warm up the water, and even though it will take a little longer to raise the water temperature while maintaining a low stove temperature, a lower stove temperature is a lot safer.
Q: Do you need to cover the beaker?
A: You can use a plastic wrap to cover your beaker during the heating, although the heat can make it become very soft, and it could potentially fall off or into the beaker. One thing to note is that if you are covering the beaker with plastic wrap, you will prevent evaporation, so the water vapor will collect underneath the wrap. That being said, the project idea doesn't explicitly call for covering the beaker, and it would probably be easier to work with open containers (make sure your hypothesis is appropriate). If you are using a sealed container (e.g. covered with plastic wrap), you'll have to make sure that all of your samples have the same pressure, volume, and temperature of the gas to begin with, which can be difficult.
Q: Can I use a meat thermometer instead?
A: Yes, you'll just need to make sure that every time you measure the water temperature, you immerse the meat thermometer in the same amount of water. Many meat thermometers are very sensitive to how far into the meat they are inserted, and typically you should insert it about half way.
Q: Should I weigh the beaker and water before or after heating?
A: The Project Idea says to quickly weigh the beaker and the water after heating, but if you are weighing the beaker and water before heating, you might want to conduct a separate side experiment to check if the mass difference between weighing the samples before or after heating is statistically significant. If there is a statistically significant difference, it could be due to loss of water mass or other reasons. Feel free to think of other possible reasons for different masses!
Q: How am I supposed to keep the freezer shut as much as possible if I have to open it every 5 minutes to check on the temperature?
A: Try to keep the freezer shut as much as possible. You can try things like not opening the door all the way whenever you measure the water temperature, and measuring as fast as possible without losing accuracy. Another idea is to use an electronic thermometer with a remote temperature probe so you don't have to open the freezer at all! However, it should be perfectly fine to use normal thermometers as long as you try your best to be as quick and efficient as possible.
Q: Are there any safety precautions we should follow when using dry ice, carbon dioxide, and acetone?
A: When using such materials, the best bet is to check out the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for the specific materials you are using. Such MSDS info can be found online, typically on supplier websites. For instance, dry ice can cause frostbite if it comes into contact with bare skin, and it should also not be contained in a sealed container, as the container could explode as it sublimes and produces gas. Carbon dioxide should be used and stored in an area with proper ventilation. Acetone is flammable, so it should be kept away from flames. It can also be mildly toxic, so it should not come into contact with your skin. If you're unsure, consult the MSDS information and always be sure to have an adult supervise you while you're doing your project!
Q: Should I measure the time that it takes for the water to reach 0°C or for all of it to freeze?
A: The Project Idea says to measure the time at which the water reaches 0°C. As it is difficult to pinpoint at what time freezing occurs (you'd have to look for tiny crystals of ice forming in random places in the water!), the most simple and accurate way is to measure at what time the water hits 0°C. In order to be very accurate, make sure that your thermometer/measuring device is kept in the SAME place in the water at all times!
Q: Why am I not seeing the Mpemba Effect?
A: There are many reasons why you might not be seeing the Mpemba Effect, and to be perfectly honest, no one really knows the true reason behind the Mpemba Effect. The fact of the matter is that sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. The phenomenon certainly exists for certain conditions, but no one really knows why it doesn't exist for other conditions. The best advice we have is to try to carefully control your experiments as much as possible. If it doesn't work on the first try, vary your conditions slightly and see if another set of conditions will allow you to see the Mpemba Effect. For instance, you should carefully control your freezer conditions, as different freezer conditions can alter the different types of heat transfer (conduction, convection, evaporation, and radiation) and consequently produce changes in the freezing rate of the water.
Q: What if my results do not match my hypothesis? What if I really can't see the Mpemba Effect?
A: If your results don't match your hypothesis, that's perfectly okay! The beauty of science can sometimes be found in its unpredictability, and you certainly shouldn't change your hypothesis to change your results should you find a discrepancy. Changing your hypothesis to match your results is actually an example of scientific dishonesty. If you really can't see the Mpemba Effect, don't fret, as we mentioned before, it's anyone's guess as to why certain conditions allow for the effect to be observed, while other conditions don't show the effect. Remember, science is about repeating trials and reproducing results, so we encourage you to keep trying and have fun with the project!

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