When ice is placed on water, why does it float?

If the ice cubes in your cold drink sank to the bottom of the glass like a rock, maybe you wouldn't want to drink it on a hot day. To what end, then, does ice float on water? What causes things to float, in fact, is a mystery.

What causes buoyancy?

When placed in water, objects with a lower density than water will float. Archimedes' principle provides an explanation for this phenomenon.

Let us forewarn you that the following explanation will involve quite a bit of mathematics before you continue.

Any object dropped into a glass of water will experience buoyancy, a force that causes it to rise against the pull of gravity. In order for the object to be completely or partially submerged, some of the water must have been displaced, as evidenced by the rising water level.

According to Archimedes's principle, the weight of the water that is displaced by a submerged object is equal to the buoyant force pushing upward against the object. The force of gravity, or "g," is multiplied by an object's mass to determine its weight. Therefore, the buoyant force, which we will refer to as "FB" from now on, is proportional to the product of the mass of the water and gravity.

When we multiply mass by its density, we get its volume, so density is defined as mass divided by its volume. Our buoyant force, FB, can be calculated as the product of the water's density times its volume times gravity.

A diagram showing an ice cube in water, with its buoyant force pointing upwards and its weight pointing downward

An object's buoyant force must be greater than its weight if it is to float in water.

There must be an upward buoyant force that is greater than the downward gravitational force for an object to float. Who or what then decides whether this occurs? It boils down to the "Eureka!" moment that got Archimedes out of the tub. To illustrate this point, he decided to strip down to his underwear and run naked down the street.

Therefore, our buoyant force FB is equal to the density of water times the volume of the submerged object times gravity (g) if the volume of the water is equal to the volume of the submerged object.

This buoyant force should be significantly larger than gravity. How much gravitational pull does it have? What we have here is the object's weight, which is simply its mass multiplied by gravity. For the same reason as before, we can express the weight of the object as W = g * density * volume of the submerged object.

Similar Examples

The only difference here is the density, which is identical to the expression for FB in every other way. Therefore, if the object's density is less than the density of water, the buoyant force will cancel out the gravitational pull.

As far as the laws of physics are concerned, this whole thing boils down to one simple rule: anything less dense than water will float.

The solid form of a material is unusually unlikely to be less dense than the liquid form, but if it is, the solid will float on the liquid.

Different arrangements of the material's constituent particles give rise to distinct "states of matter." When a solid is formed, the molecules arrange themselves in what is called a crystal lattice, which is a regular, repeating pattern.

An example of a crystal lattice © Wimmel, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Image by Wimmel (in the public domain) on Wikimedia Commons, depicting a crystal lattice.

A solid's molecular vibrations increase in energy and strength as they are heated. At some point, they amass enough momentum to shatter the lattice's confines. The molecules in this liquid can move freely in all directions, but they tend to cluster together.

In a liquid, the particles are further apart and are free to move around © Kaneiderdaniel, CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), via Wikimedia Commons

Particles in a liquid are less packed together and more mobile than they are in a solid. Kaneiderdaniel, CC BY-SA 3. license 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) via Wikimedia Commons

Eventually, the molecules will separate completely as a gas if you keep heating it.

With each transformation of phase, the material loses density.

When placed in water, ice should sink because solids are denser than liquids, but it floats. Given the unique characteristics of water, Hydrogen bonding is a physical phenomenon that affects water molecules.

Water molecules are V-shaped, with one oxygen atom at the center and two hydrogen atoms on the sides. Covalent bonds, which occur when two atoms share an electron pair, keep the molecule together.

A diagram of a water molecule, showing the V shape with oxygen in the centre © MsKDinh, CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0), via Wikimedia Commons

The V-shaped water molecule with oxygen at its core, as depicted by MsKDinh (CC BY-SA 4.0). Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

On the other hand, the oxygen atom exerts a far stronger attraction on these free electrons than the hydrogen atoms can. Electrons are consequently drawn to the oxygen atom rather than either of the hydrogen atoms. In total, this gives the molecule a slight negative charge near the oxygen end and a slight positive charge near the hydrogen end.

Subtle charges on different molecules interact with one another because opposites attract. Hydrogen bonds (which aren't actually bonds) are the name for these associations.

When the molecules are in a liquid state, they are able to slide past one another because the hydrogen bonds between them form and break repeatedly.

Water, however, begins to take on its crystalline lattice structure as it cools. The molecules' weak positive and negative charges make them eager to form hydrogen bonds, but the forces between them are balanced by their mutual repulsion. The resulting structure has a density that is just below that of water.

At a temperature of about 4 degrees Celsius, water has the greatest density. Once it has completely solidified into ice, its volume has increased by about 9 percent from its initial state as the cooling process begins. As the ice continues to grow, it is applying a tremendous (though not infinite) amount of pressure.

Roughly speaking, ice has a bulk modulus of 8. Pascals: 8.09109 This means that the pressure on the sides of a sealed container of water after it has been frozen is roughly 790 megapascals, or 114,000 pounds per square inch. According to Professor Martin Chaplin of London South Bank University, the foremost authority on the properties of this peculiar substance, there is no material on Earth capable of withstanding pressures of 7,800 atmospheres. Matthews, Robert

As more and more water molecules adopt the lattice formation and press against the remaining water molecules in the free liquid state, the pressure inside a very strong, rigid container will begin to rise as the water cools. A rapid increase in pressure will occur if the container doesn't shatter, with the atoms beginning to rearrange into a new, more compact configuration at about 200 megapascals (roughly 2000 Atmospheres).

Depending on the conditions, thirteen distinct types of stable ice can be found. Ice Ih refers to regular ice, while ice III refers to the densest high-pressure ice. When the expansion pressure inside a closed container is equalized, the water inside will freeze as a combination of ice types Ih and III. Keiron Allen

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