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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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High-Speed Movie Aids Scientists Who Design Glowing Molecules

In a recent experiment conducted at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, a research team used bright, ultrafast X-ray pulses from SLAC's X-ray free-electron laser to create a high-speed movie of a fluorescent protein in action. With that information, the scientists began to design a marker that switches more easily, a quality that can improve resolution during biological imaging.

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Copper Catalyst Yields High Efficiency CO2-to-Fuels Conversion

Berkeley Lab scientists have developed a new electrocatalyst that can directly convert carbon dioxide into multicarbon fuels and alcohols using record-low inputs of energy. The work is the latest in a round of studies coming out of Berkeley Lab tackling the challenge of a creating a clean chemical manufacturing system that can put carbon dioxide to good use.

Solar-to-Fuel System Recycles CO2 to Make Ethanol and Ethylene

Berkeley Lab scientists have harnessed the power of photosynthesis to convert carbon dioxide into fuels and alcohols at efficiencies far greater than plants. The achievement marks a significant advance in the effort to move toward sustainable sources of fuel.

New Evidence for Small, Short-Lived Drops of Early Universe Quark-Gluon Plasma?

UPTON, NY--Particles emerging from even the lowest energy collisions of small deuterons with large heavy nuclei at the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider (RHIC)--a U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science User Facility for nuclear physics research at DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory--exhibit behavior scientists associate with the formation of a soup of quarks and gluons, the fundamental building blocks of nearly all visible matter.

New Insights Into Nanocrystal Growth in Liquid

PNNL researchers have measured the forces that cause certain crystals to assemble, revealing competing factors that researchers might be able to control. The work has a variety of implications in both discovery and applied science. In addition to providing insights into the formation of minerals and semiconductor nanomaterials, it might also help scientists understand soil as it expands and contracts through wetting and drying cycles.


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PPPL Physicist Francesca Poli Named ITER Scientist Fellow

Article describes new ITER Scientist Fellow.

Los Alamos Gains Role in High-Performance Computing for Materials Program

A new high-performance computing initiative announced this week by the U.S. Department of Energy will help U.S. industry accelerate the development of new or improved materials for use in severe environments.

UK Commits $88 Million to LBNF/DUNE in First-Ever Umbrella Science Agreement with U.S.

The UK has committed $88 million to the Long-Baseline Neutrino Facility and Deep Underground Neutrino Experiment as part of an umbrella science and technology agreement with the United States.

Wayne State Receives $1.2 Million NSF Grant to Develop Autonomous Battery Operating System

Researchers at Wayne State University led by Nathan Fisher, associate professor of computer science in the College of Engineering, received a $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to address the need for effective, integrative battery operating systems that provide sustained and reliable power.

UAH leads effort that secures $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation

A partnership comprising nine universities in Alabama, including The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) as the lead institution, has been awarded a $20 million, five-year grant by the National Science Foundation's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).

Sandia Labs Wins 5 Regional Technology Transfer Awards

Sandia National Laboratories won five awards from the 2017 Federal Laboratory Consortium for its work to develop and commercialize innovative technologies.

Tulane Receives Grant to Reduce Auto Emissions

Members of Tulane University's Shantz Lab will work with industrial scientists to assist in the development of next-generation materials designed to reduce harmful automotive emissions. The three-year old lab and its group of students have received a grant and equipment resources from SACHEM, Inc., a chemical science company.

Lab Leads New Effort in Materials Development

Lawrence Livermore National Lab will be part of a multi-lab effort to apply high-performance computing to US-based industry's discovery, design, and development of materials for severe environments under a new initiative announced by the Department of Energy (DOE) on Sept. 19.

ORNL Innovation Crossroads Program Opens Second Round of Energy Entrepreneurial Fellowships

Entrepreneurs are invited to apply for the second round of Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Innovation Crossroads program.

Los Alamos Recognized as Top Diversity Employer

For the second straight year, Los Alamos National Laboratory was recognized as a top diversity employer by LATINA Style and STEM Workforce Diversity magazine.


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Fungi: Gene Activator Role Discovered

Specific modifications to fungi DNA may hold the secret to turning common plant degradation agents into biofuel producers.

First Look at a Living Cell Membrane

Neutrons provide the solution to nanoscale examination of living cell membrane and confirm the existence of lipid rafts.

High Yield Biomass Conversion Strategy Ready for Commercialization

Researchers convert 80 percent of biomass into high-value products with strategy that's ready for commercialization.

Consequences of Drought Stress on Biofuels

Switchgrass cultivated during a year of severe drought inhibited microbial fermentation and resulting biofuel production.

Clay Minerals and Metal Oxides Change How Uranium Travels Through Sediments

Montmorillonite clays prevent uranium from precipitating from liquids, letting it travel with groundwater.

Tundra Loses Carbon with Rapid Permafrost Thaw

Seven-year-study shows plant growth does not sustainably balance carbon losses from solar warming and permafrost thaw.

Crystals Grow by Twisting, Aligning and Snapping Together

Van der Waals force, which that enables tiny crystals to grow, could be used to design new materials.

Vitamin B12 Fuels Microbial Growth

Scarce compound, vitamin B12, is key for cellular metabolism and may help shape microbial communities that affect environmental cycles and bioenergy production.

Carbon in Floodplain Unlikely to Cycle into the Atmosphere

Microbes leave a large fraction of carbon in anoxic sediments untouched, a key finding for understanding how watersheds influence Earth's ecosystem.

Bacterial Cell Wall Changes Produce More Fatty Molecules

New strategy greatly increases the production and secretion of biofuel building block lipids in bacteria able to grow at industrial scales.


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