Fractal Frost

Regions of frost forming on a micropatterned surface.

As nightly temperatures drop in the northern latitudes, many of us are beginning to wake up to frosty patterns on leaves, windows, and cars. Frost‘s spread is a complex dance between evaporation and nucleation, as seen in this recent study.

Here, researchers watched frost grow on a surface covered in 30-micrometer-wide micropillars. The pillars serve as anchor points for droplets, making frosting easier to observe. At low humidity levels (Image 1), droplets evaporate so quickly that frost regions remain isolated and do not interact. At high humidity levels (Image 3), on the other hand, the droplets evaporate so slowly that they’re able to poach water vapor from their neighbors to form frost spikes. When a spike touches another droplet, it freezes the region almost instantly. As a result, the frost spreads quickly and covers nearly every part of the surface. At intermediate humidity levels (Image 2), though, this frost chain reaction and evaporation compete, causing the frost to grow in fractals. (Image and research credit: L. Hauer et al.; via APS Physics)

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