Phenomena

Liquid Nitrogen and the Leidenfrost Effect

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One of the tried and true cooking tips my mother gave me when I was younger was to test the temperature of my griddle before making pancakes by splashing a few drops of water on it. If it was hot enough that the water skittered across the surface before evaporating, then it was ready. Aside from being a way to make great pancakes, this tip demonstrates an everyday application of the Leidenfrost effect. When the surface of the pan is significantly higher than the boiling point of the water, the part of the water drop that hits the pan is vaporized, creating a thin layer of water vapor on which the rest of the droplet rests. The vapor serves as an insulator, protecting the rest of the water drop from the heat of the pan, as well as a lubricant, allowing the drop slip and slide easily across the surface. The same effect lets the brave plunge a hand into liquid nitrogen without damage, but they have to be quick, otherwise their hand will cool to the point that the liquid nitrogen contacts it without a protective layer of nitrogen. (In that case, a nasty case of frostbite may be the least of one’s worries. We do NOT recommend trying this one at home.)

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