Electrostatic de-icing could make it easier to defrost car windows

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Woman deicing car

The manual way to de-ice your car

Anze Furlan/Getty Images/EyeEm

Ice has an electrical charge, which could be exploited to create devices that easily defrost car windows and aeroplane wings.

As frost forms, its exposed surface becomes warmer than its lower layers, which are shielded from the air. This temperature difference causes positively and negatively charged ions within the frost to sink. The positive ions seem to move faster – why is unclear – so the bottom of the frost becomes more positively charged than the top.

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Jonathan Boreyko at Virginia Tech and his colleagues wanted to use this natural phenomenon to develop a tool to remove frost. “We wanted to know if we could exploit that charge to rip the frost itself off the substrate,” he says.

The team tested this by growing frost on a variety of surfaces, including glass and silicon, and suspending filter paper about 5 millimetres above the ice. Using a syringe to drip water onto the paper, the group found that the moment it became wet, the ice crystals on the surface of the frost instantly began to twist and break off, jumping towards the water soaked paper.

This could have happened because the negatively charged ions on the surface of the frost were attracted to positive ions in the water, producing an “electrostatic de-icing” effect, says Boreyko’s team.

Although the team was only able to remove individual ice crystals and not the entire frost sheet, Boreyko says the next step is to scale this up. He says that passing an electrode with a large charge over frost could make removing ice from large objects, like aeroplane wings, a much quicker task.

Journal reference: ACS Nano, DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.0c09153

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