Why Compressed Air Cans Get Cold

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Anyone who’s used a can of compressed air to clean their computer or keyboard knows that the can quickly gets quite cold to the touch. This Minute Physics video explores some of the thermodynamics behind that process. Henry first identifies a few explanations that don’t quite line up with observations, before focusing in on the contents of the can: 1,1-difluoroethane. Inside the sealed can, this chemical sits in an equilibrium of part-liquid, part-vapor. But when pressure is released by opening the nozzle, the liquid boils, generating extra vapor and cooling whatever remains in the reservoir.

Although it’s not a good explanation for the compressed air can’s cooling, the cooling of an expanding gas is very important in applications like supersonic wind tunnels. That first equation you see at 0:36 in the video (for isentropic adiabatic expansion) is key to what happens in a nozzle with supersonic flow. As the flow accelerates to supersonic speeds, its temperature drops dramatically. When I was in graduate school, we actually had to preheat our hypersonic wind tunnel (in pretty much the same way you would preheat your oven at home) before we ran at Mach 6 because otherwise the temperature inside the test section would drop so low that the oxygen would liquefy out of the air! (Image and video credit: Minute Physics)

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