Freezing Liquid Nitrogen Creates Something Amazing

Nitrogen is the most abundant chemical element in Earth’s atmosphere and is crucial for plant growth and reproduction. And yet, it’s incredibly boring, clear gas at room temperature.

But expose it to low pressure conditions, and you can transform it into a beautiful, crackling sheet of glass.

While nitrogen is a gas at room temperature, it becomes a liquid when cooled down to negative 320 F. And when you take that liquid, and shove it under a vacuum, something amazing happens — as ChefSteps learned.

But don’t try this at home, liquid nitrogen can cause frostbite if not handled carefully.

When the liquid is placed in a vacuum, it makes a crazy substance called “nitrogen glass.” The pressure in a vacuum is significantly lower than at sea level on Earth because there’s very little air inside. As a result, any liquid placed inside of a vacuum boils at a lower temperature.

You can see the crazy boiling action below:

This boiling action is what the experimenters are after because as the liquid boils it cools. This is because it takes energy to transform the liquid into a gas and as the liquid expends energy, it reduces its overall temperature.

This seems counterintuitive, but think about when you sweat: The liquid evaporating from your skin lowers your body temperature because its carrying away energy, in the form of heat. Similarly, the evaporating liquid nitrogen cools as it boils.

Eventually, the liquid nitrogen boils enough heat away that it reaches its freezing point and instantly hardens into a glass-like solid, shown below, in a slow motion close up and in real time.

While the nitrogen glass looks pretty, it’s not stable. The nitrogen atoms want to reorganize into a tighter, stronger, crystalline structure. So, shortly after forming, the glass cracks into a million tiny fissures as the molecules rearrange themselves explosively and seemingly all at once:

“Solid nitrogen is something that few people have ever seen,” according to the the video of making nitrogen glass by ChefSteps.

Below is the fracturing in slow motion. What you’re seeing is the atoms rearranging themselves like falling dominoes in a chain reaction. The once beautiful glass sheet is now scarred with millions of cracks.

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