Marcus Chown in New Scientist:
HOT water sometimes freezes faster than cold water – but why? This peculiar phenomenon has baffled scientists for generations, but now there is evidence that the effect may depend on random impurities in the water.
Fast-freezing of hot water is known as the Mpemba effect, after a Tanzanian schoolboy called Erasto Mpemba (see “How the Mpemba effect got its name”). Physicists have come up with several possible explanations, including faster evaporation reducing the volume of hot water, a layer of frost insulating the cooler water, and differing concentration of solutes. But the answer has been very hard to pin down because the effect is unreliable – cold water is just as likely to freeze faster.
James Brownridge, who is radiation safety officer for the State University of New York at Binghamton, believes that this randomness is crucial. Over the past 10 years he has carried out hundreds of experiments on the Mpemba effect in his spare time, and has evidence that the effect is based on the shifty phenomenon of supercooling.
“Water hardly ever freezes at 0 °C,” says Brownridge. “It usually supercools, and only begins freezing at a lower temperature.” The freezing point depends on impurities in the water which seed the formation of ice crystals. Typically, water may contain several types of impurity, from dust particles to dissolved salts and bacteria, each of which triggers freezing at a characteristic temperature. The impurity with the highest nucleation temperature determines the temperature at which the water freezes.