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Hot Ice or Sodium Acetate

Make Hot Ice or Sodium Acetate from Vinegar and Baking Soda

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You can supercool sodium acetate and cause it to crystallize on command.

You can supercool hot ice or sodium acetate so that it will remain a liquid below its melting point. You can trigger crystallization on command, forming sculptures as the liquid solidifies. The reaction is exothermic so heat is generated by the hot ice.

Anne Helmenstine
This is a crystal of sodium acetate or hot ice.

This is a crystal of sodium acetate trihydrate, sometimes known as hot ice because it somewhat resembles water ice and because it generates heat when it crystallizes.

Henry Mühlfpordt
This is a photograph of sodium acetate crystallization.

This is a photograph of sodium acetate crystallization.

Anne Helmenstine
Sodium acetate or hot ice is an amazing chemical you can prepare yourself from baking soda and vinegar. You can cool a solution of sodium acetate below its melting point and then cause the liquid to crystallize. The crystallization is an exothermic process, so the resulting ice is hot. Solidification occurs so quickly you can form sculptures as you pour the hot ice.

Sodium Acetate or Hot Ice Materials

Prepare the Sodium Acetate or Hot Ice

  1. In a saucepan or large beaker, add baking soda to the vinegar, a little at a time and stirring between additions. The baking soda and vinegar react to form sodium acetate and carbon dioxide gas. If you don't add the baking soda slowly, you'll essentially get a baking soda and vinegar volcano, which would overflow your container. You've made the sodium acetate, but it is too dilute to be very useful, so you need to remove most of the water.

    Here is the reaction between the baking soda and vinegar to produce the sodium acetate:

    Na+[HCO3] + CH3–COOH → CH3–COO Na+ + H2O + CO2

  2. Boil the solution to concentrate the sodium acetate. You could just remove the solution from heat once you have 100-150 ml of solution remaining, but the easiest way to get good results is to simply boil the solution until a crystal skin or film starts to form on the surface. This took me about an hour on the stove over medium heat. If you use lower heat you are less likely to get yellow or brown liguid, but it will take longer. If discoloration occurs, it's okay.
  3. Once you remove the sodium acetate solution from heat, immediately cover it to prevent any further evaporation. I poured my solution into a separate container and covered it with plastic wrap. You should not have any crystals in your solution. If you do have crystals, stir a very small amount of water or vinegar into the solution, just sufficient to dissolve the crystals.
  4. Place the covered container of sodium acetate solution in the refrigerator to chill.

Activities Involving Hot Ice

The sodium acetate in the solution in the refrigerator is an example of a supercooled liquid. That is, the sodium acetate exists in liquid form below its usual melting point. You can initiate crystallization by adding a small crystal of sodium acetate or possibly even by touching the surface of the sodium acetate solution with a spoon or finger. The crystallization is an example of an exothermic process. Heat is released as the 'ice' forms. To demonstrate supercooling, crystallization, and heat release you could:
  • Drop a crystal into the container of cooled sodium acetate solution. The sodium acetate will crystallize within seconds, working outward from where you added the crystal. The crystal acts as a nucleation site or seed for rapid crystal growth. Although the solution just came out of the refrigerator, if you touch the container you will find it is now warm or hot.
  • Pour the solution onto a shallow dish. If the hot ice does not spontaneously begin crystallization, you can touch it with a crystal of sodium acetate (you can usually scrape a small amount of sodium acetate from the side of the container you used earlier). The crystallization will progress from the dish up toward where you are pouring the liquid. You can construct towers of hot ice. The towers will be warm to the touch.
  • You can re-melt sodium acetate and re-use it for demonstrations.

Hot Ice Safety

As you would expect, sodium acetate is a safe chemical for use in demonstrations. It is used as a food additive to enhance flavor and is the active chemical in many hot packs. The heat generated by the crystallization of a refrigerated sodium acetate solution should not present a burn hazard.

Hot Ice Help

Answers to common questions about hot ice are available that should help solve any problems you may encounter with this project. There is also a video tutorial showing how to make hot ice.

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