Why does salt melt ice?
If you live in a place that has lots of snow and ice in the winter, then you have probably seen the highway department spreading salt on the road to melt the ice. You may have also used salt on ice when making home-made ice cream. Salt lowers the freezing/melting point of water, so in both cases the idea is to take advantage of the lower melting point.
Ice forms when the temperature of water reaches 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). When you add salt, that temperature drops: A 10-percent salt solution freezes at 20 F (-6 C), and a 20-percent solution freezes at 2 F (-16 C).
On a roadway, this means that if you sprinkle salt on the ice, you can melt it. The salt dissolves into the liquid water in the ice and lowers its freezing point.
If you ever watch salt melting ice, you can see the dissolving process happen — the ice immediately around the grain of salt melts, and the melting spreads out from that point. If the temperature of the roadway is lower than 15 F or so, then the salt really won’t have any effect — the solid salt cannot get into the structure of the solid water to start the dissolving process. In that case, spreading sand over the top of the ice to provide traction is a better option.
When you are making ice cream, the temperature around the ice cream mixture needs to be lower than 32 F if you want the mixture to freeze. Salt mixed with ice creates a brine that has a temperature lower than 32 F. When you add salt to the ice water, you lower the melting temperature of the ice down to 0 F or so. The brine is so cold that it easily freezes the ice cream mixture.
Two things happen when ice and water are placed in contact:
- Molecules on the surface of the ice escape into the water (melting), and
- molecules of water are captured on the surface of the ice (freezing).
When the rate of freezing is the same as the rate of melting, the amount of ice and the amount of water won’t change on average (although there are short-term fluctuations at the surface of the ice). The ice and water are said to be in dynamic equilibrium with each other. The balance between freezing and melting can be maintained at 0°C, the melting point of water, unless conditions change in a way that favours one of the processes over the other.
The balance between freezing and melting processes can easily be upset. If the ice/water mixture is cooled, the molecules move slower. The slower-moving molecules are more easily captured by the ice, and freezing occurs at a greater rate than melting.
Conversely, heating the mixture makes the molecules move faster on average, and melting is favoured. Adding salt to the system will also disrupt the equilibrium. Consider replacing some of the water molecules with molecules of some other substance. The foreign molecules dissolve in the water, but do not pack easily into the array of molecules in the solid. This leads to fewer water molecules on the liquid side because the some of the water has been replaced by salt. The total number of waters captured by the ice per second goes down, so the rate of freezing goes down. The rate of melting is unchanged by the presence of the foreign material, so melting occurs faster than freezing. That’s why salt melts ice.
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