Doe Science news source

The DOE Science News Source is a Newswise initiative to promote research news from the Office of Science of the DOE to the public and news media.
  • 2016-12-20 09:00:24
  • Article ID: 666772

Scientists Bear Witness to Birth of an Ice Cloud

The initial steps of ice cloud formation - key for climate understanding - observed in the laboratory

  • Credit: Photo courtesy of PNNL

    Ice crystals form around a minuscule particle in the very first seconds of the formation of an ice cloud.

  • Credit: Photo courtesy of PNNL

    The birthing chamber for ice cloud crystals.

RICHLAND, Wash. – Scientists have witnessed the birth of atmospheric ice clouds, creating ice cloud crystals in the laboratory and then taking images of the process through a microscope, essentially documenting the very first steps of cloud formation.

The team witnessed a process known as ice nucleation in unprecedented detail, taking time-lapse movies of the first few seconds when a particle attracts water vapor, forming ice crystals that become the core of icy cirrus clouds – the high, wispy clouds that act much like a blanket for our planet.

How clouds form and what they do has a major influence on our climate and is a focus of scientists studying our planet. Clouds can reflect the sun’s light, keeping the planet cool, or absorb the Earth’s radiation, heating the planet. The latter is the case for ice clouds created under the conditions in this study. The complex chemistry of airborne particles that serve as the birthplace of the ice crystals adds additional challenges.

“This is one of the most critical but least understood parts of the process of how cold clouds form,” said first author Bingbing Wang, a scientist formerly with EMSL, the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“The fundamental process of how ice grows is relatively well understood, but ice nucleation – that moment when the first group of molecules comes together – remains a big challenge,” said Wang, who is now a professor at Xiamen University in China.

To take a close-up look at the initial steps, Alexander Laskin, a leader of the EMSL group, brought together scientists from Stony Brook University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and PNNL, as well as the resources of two DOE Office of Science User Facilities: EMSL and the Advanced Light Source, which is at the Berkeley Lab. The team, with Daniel Knopf leading the Stony Brook group and Mary Gilles leading the Berkeley group, describes the work in the Nov. 21 issue of Physical Chemistry Chemical Physics.

Cloud in a lab

The first step for creating a microscopic cold cloud is replicating conditions found high above the Earth’s surface.

To do that, the team created a highly confined climate-controlled chamber about the size of a poppy seed where scientists regulate conditions like temperature, pressure and relative humidity precisely. The sample can then be placed inside the environmental scanning electron microscope at EMSL.

Then the team set out to re-create ice nucleation events. Almost anyone who lives in a colder climate has seen the phenomenon. It happens when water vapor from the air freezes and becomes ice quickly, for instance, when frosty streaks form on your windows during cold mornings.

The process of ice nucleation is also at play when aircraft ice up or when frozen foods are made and packaged. Aberrant ice nucleation would give your ice cream the texture of frozen ice cubes, for example.

In the atmosphere, airborne particles including those containing mineral dust, volcanic ash, carbon-based material, soot, aircraft emissions or even microbes are at the core of cloud-formation events. In this experiment scientists used particles of kaolinite, a mineral that scientists often use to study the phenomenon.

When temperatures are very low – as they are above 20,000 feet, where cold cirrus clouds form – and relative humidity is high, the particles attract surrounding water vapor which freezes and deposits as ice. Cirrus clouds are mostly made of ice crystals that grow by taking up the surrounding water vapor.

Particle flicks

The particle’s size, shape, texture and other features all play a role in how the ice crystal forms. The particles in the experiment were just two or three microns in size – less than one-tenth the width of a human hair. While many labs study ice nucleation, few start with observations about individual particles, to replicate the earliest stages of ice formation.

During the nucleation events, Laskin’s team photographed the particle every three seconds, then combined the photos in several time-lapse movies. The environmental high-resolution scanning electron microscope was able to record regions on the particle only 50 nanometers wide, about one-thousandth the width of a human hair. To the untrained eye, the exercise is similar to staring out into space searching for small dots that are actually stars and planets. In the ice nucleation movies, small ice crystals barely visible at first grow as water vapor freezes onto them.

The team also used the system to watch ice nucleation happen on particles collected in the atmosphere May 19, 2010, in the CalNex 2010 field campaign. The particles, made mostly of carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, were put under observation at EMSL.

In both sets of experiments, nucleation took place at temperatures as low as 205 degrees Kelvin (around minus 90 degrees Fahrenheit) and relative humidity from about 70 to 80 percent.

“We were able to monitor moment by moment the formation of an ice crystal, at nanoscale resolution and under atmospherically relevant conditions,” said co-author Daniel Knopf, an EMSL user from Stony Brook University. “Doing so and knowing that this process is replicated a million times, resulting in a cloud visible to the naked eye, is tremendously exciting and a huge step forward for our predictive understanding of cloud formation with important ramifications for climate.”

The work was funded by the Department of Energy Office of Science and PNNL’s Laboratory Directed Research and Development program.

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Ames Lab Scientists' Surprising Discovery: Making Ferromagnets Stronger by Adding Non-Magnetic Element

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory discovered that they could functionalize magnetic materials through a thoroughly unlikely method, by adding amounts of the virtually non-magnetic element scandium to a gadolinium-germanium alloy. It was so unlikely they called it a "counterintuitive experimental finding" in their published work on the research.

Cut U.S. Commercial Building Energy Use 29% with Widespread Controls

The U.S. could slash its energy use by the equivalent of what is currently used by 12 to 15 million Americans if commercial buildings fully used energy-efficiency controls nationwide.

How a Single Chemical Bond Balances Cells Between Life and Death

With SLAC's X-ray laser and synchrotron, scientists measured exactly how much energy goes into keeping a crucial chemical bond from triggering a cell's death spiral.

New Efficient, Low-Temperature Catalyst for Converting Water and CO to Hydrogen Gas and CO2

Scientists have developed a new low-temperature catalyst for producing high-purity hydrogen gas while simultaneously using up carbon monoxide (CO). The discovery could improve the performance of fuel cells that run on hydrogen fuel but can be poisoned by CO.

Study Sheds Light on How Bacterial Organelles Assemble

Scientists at Berkeley Lab and Michigan State University are providing the clearest view yet of an intact bacterial microcompartment, revealing at atomic-level resolution the structure and assembly of the organelle's protein shell. This work can help provide important information for research in bioenergy, pathogenesis, and biotechnology.

A Single Electron's Tiny Leap Sets Off 'Molecular Sunscreen' Response

In experiments at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, scientists were able to see the first step of a process that protects a DNA building block called thymine from sun damage: When it's hit with ultraviolet light, a single electron jumps into a slightly higher orbit around the nucleus of a single oxygen atom.

Researchers Find New Mechanism for Genome Regulation

The same mechanisms that separate mixtures of oil and water may also help the organization of an unusual part of our DNA called heterochromatin, according to a new study by Berkeley Lab researchers. They found that liquid-liquid phase separation helps heterochromatin organize large parts of the genome into specific regions of the nucleus. The work addresses a long-standing question about how DNA functions are organized in space and time, including how genes are silenced or expressed.

The Rise of Giant Viruses

Research reveals that giant viruses acquire genes piecemeal from others, with implications for bioenergy production and environmental cleanup.

Grasses: The Secrets Behind Their Success

Researchers find a grass gene affecting how plants manage water and carbon dioxide that could be useful to growing biofuel crops on marginal land.

SLAC Experiment is First to Decipher Atomic Structure of an Intact Virus with an X-ray Laser

An international team of scientists has for the first time used an X-ray free-electron laser to unravel the structure of an intact virus particle on the atomic level. The method dramatically reduces the amount of virus material required, while also allowing the investigations to be carried out several times faster than before. This opens up entirely new research opportunities.


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Chicago Quantum Exchange to Create Technologically Transformative Ecosystem

The University of Chicago is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory to launch an intellectual hub for advancing academic, industrial and governmental efforts in the science and engineering of quantum information.

Department of Energy Awards Six Research Contracts Totaling $258 Million to Accelerate U.S. Supercomputing Technology

Today U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced that six leading U.S. technology companies will receive funding from the Department of Energy's Exascale Computing Project (ECP) as part of its new PathForward program, accelerating the research necessary to deploy the nation's first exascale supercomputers.

Cynthia Jenks Named Director of Argonne's Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division

Argonne has named Cynthia Jenks the next director of the laboratory's Chemical Sciences and Engineering Division. Jenks currently serves as the assistant director for scientific planning and the director of the Chemical and Biological Sciences Division at Ames Laboratory.

Argonne-Developed Technology for Producing Graphene Wins TechConnect National Innovation Award

A method that significantly cuts the time and cost needed to grow graphene has won a 2017 TechConnect National Innovation Award. This is the second year in a row that a team at Argonne's Center for Nanoscale Materials has received this award.

Honeywell UOP and Argonne Seek Research Collaborations in Catalysis Under Technologist in Residence Program

Researchers at Argonne are collaborating with Honeywell UOP scientists to explore innovative energy and chemicals production.

Follow the Fantastic Voyage of the ICARUS Neutrino Detector

The ICARUS neutrino detector, born at Gran Sasso National Lab in Italy and refurbished at CERN, will make its way across the sea to Fermilab this summer. Follow along using an interactive map online.

JSA Awards Graduate Fellowships for Research at Jefferson Lab

Jefferson Sciences Associates announced today the award of eight JSA/Jefferson Lab graduate fellowships. The doctoral students will use the fellowships to support their advanced studies at their universities and conduct research at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility (Jefferson Lab) - a U.S. Department of Energy nuclear physics laboratory managed and operated by JSA, a joint venture between SURA and PAE Applied Technologies.

Muon Magnet's Moment Has Arrived

On May 31, the 50-foot-wide superconducting electromagnet at the center of the Muon g-2 experiment saw its first beam of muon particles from Fermilab's accelerators, kicking off a three-year effort to measure just what happens to those particles when placed in a stunningly precise magnetic field. The answer could rewrite scientists' picture of the universe and how it works.

Seven Small Businesses to Collaborate with Argonne to Solve Technical Challenges

Seven small businesses have been selected to collaborate with researchers at Argonne to address technical challenges as part of DOE's Small Business Vouchers Program.

JSA Names Charles Perdrisat and Charles Sinclair as Co-Recipients of its 2017 Outstanding Nuclear Physicist Prize

Jefferson Science Associates, LLC, announced today that Charles Perdrisat and Charles Sinclair are the recipients of the 2017 Outstanding Nuclear Physicist Prize. The 2017 JSA Outstanding Nuclear Physicist Award is jointly awarded to Charles Perdrisat for his pioneering implementation of the polarization transfer technique to determine proton elastic form factors, and to Charles Sinclair for his crucial development of polarized electron beam technology, which made such measurements, and many others, possible.


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Oxygen: The Jekyll and Hyde of Biofuels

Scientists are devising ways to protect plants, biofuels and, ultimately, the atmosphere itself from damage caused by an element that sustains life on earth.

The Rise of Giant Viruses

Research reveals that giant viruses acquire genes piecemeal from others, with implications for bioenergy production and environmental cleanup.

Grasses: The Secrets Behind Their Success

Researchers find a grass gene affecting how plants manage water and carbon dioxide that could be useful to growing biofuel crops on marginal land.

New Perspectives Into Arctic Cloud Phases

Teamwork provides insight into complicated cloud processes that are important to potential environmental changes in the Arctic.

Mountaintop Plants and Soils to Become Out of Sync

Plants and soil microbes may be altered by climate warming at different rates and in different ways, meaning vital nutrient patterns could be misaligned.

If a Tree Falls in the Amazon

For the first time, scientists pinpointed how often storms topple trees, helping to predict how changes in Amazonia affect the world.

Turning Waste into Fuels, Microbial Style

A newly discovered metabolic process linking different bacteria in a community could enhance bioenergy production.

Department of Energy Awards Six Research Contracts Totaling $258 Million to Accelerate U.S. Supercomputing Technology

Today U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced that six leading U.S. technology companies will receive funding from the Department of Energy's Exascale Computing Project (ECP) as part of its new PathForward program, accelerating the research necessary to deploy the nation's first exascale supercomputers.

Electrifying Magnetism

Researchers create materials with controllable electrical and magnetic properties, even at room temperature.

One Step Closer to Practical Fast Charging Batteries

Novel electrode materials have designed pathways for electrons and ions during the charge/discharge cycle.


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