What Happens When You Literally Hang Something Out to Dry?

I got a question today!  A good friend from high school asked:

Hey! So I have a sciencey question for you. But don’t laugh at me! It might seem kinda silly at first, but bear with me. Ok, how does water evaporate without heat? Like a towel is wet, so we put it in the sun to dry (tada heat!) but if its a kitchen or a bathroom towel that doesn’t see any particular increase in temp? How does the towel dry? What happens to the water? Does it evaporate but in a more mild version of the cycle of thinking?
It’s actually a really good question, and the answer depends on some statistical physics and thermodynamics. You know water is turning into water vapor all the time around you, but you can also see that these things clearly aren’t boiling away.

I’ve said before that temperature and heat are kind of weird, even though we talk about them all the time:

It’s not the same thing as energy, but it is related to that.  And in scientific contexts, temperature is not the same as heat.  Heat is defined as the transfer of energy between bodies by some thermal process, like radiation (basically how old light bulbs work), conduction (touching), or convection (heat transfer by a fluid moving, like the way you might see soup churn on a stove).  So as a kind of approximate definition, we can think of temperature as a measure of how much energy something could give away as heat.
The other key point is that temperature is only an average measure of energy, as the molecules are all moving at different speeds (we touched on this at the end of this post on “negative temperature”). This turns out to be crucial, because this helps explain the distinction between boiling and evaporating a liquid. Boiling is when you heat a liquid to its boiling point, at which point it overcomes the attractive forces holding the molecules together in a liquid. In evaporation, it’s only the random molecules that happen to be moving fast enough to overcome those forces that leave.
We can better represent this with a graph showing the probabilities of each molecule having a particular velocity or energy. (Here we’re using the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, which is technically meant for ideal gases, but works as a rough approximation for liquids.) That bar on the right marks out an energy of interest, so here we’ll say it’s the energy needed for a molecule to escape the liquid (vaporization energy). At every temperature, there will always be some molecules that happen to have enough energy to leave the liquid. Because the more energetic molecules  leave first, this is also why evaporating liquids cool things off.
A graph with x-axis labelled

Maxwell-Boltzmann distributions of the energy of molecules in a gas at various temperatures. From http://ibchem.com/IB/ibnotes/full/sta_htm/Maxwell_Boltzmann.htm

You might wonder that if say, your glass of water or a drenched towel is technically cooling off from evaporation, why will it completely evaporate over time? Because the water will keep warming up to room temperature and atomic collisions will keep bringing up the remaining molecules back to a similar Boltzmann distribution.
My friend also picks up on a good observation comparing putting the towel out in the sun versus hanging it in a bathroom. Infrared light from the sun will heat up the towel compared to one hanging around in your house, and you can see that at the hotter temperatures, more molecules exceed the vaporization energy, so evaporation will be faster. (In cooking, this is also why you raise the heat but don’t need to boil a liquid to make a reduction.)

There’s another factor that’s really important in evaporation compared to boiling. You can only have so much water in a region of air before it starts condensing back into a liquid (when you see dew or fog, there’s basically so much water vapor it starts re-accumulating into drops faster than they can evaporate). So if it’s really humid, this process goes slower. This is also why people can get so hot in a sauna. Because the air is almost completely steam, their sweat can’t evaporate to cool them off.

There Are Probably No Nanoparticles in Your Food… At Least, Not Intentionally

Recently, Mother Jones posted an article about “Big Dairy” putting microscopic pieces of metal in food. Their main source is the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies and its Consumer Products Inventory, a collaboration between the Wilson Center and Virginia Tech. Unfortunately, the Mother Jones piece seems to misunderstand how the CPI is meant to be used. But another problem is that the CPI itself seems poorly designed as a tool for journalists.

So what’s the issue? The Mother Jones piece mainly focuses on the alleged use of nanoparticles of titanium dioxide (TiO2) in certain foods to enhance colors, making whites whiter or brightening other colors. First, the piece makes an error in its description of TiO2 as a “microscopic piece of metal”. Titanium is a metal, but metal oxides are not, unless you consider rust a metal (which would also be wrong). But another issue is “microscopic”. Just because something is microscopic, which generally means smaller than your eye can see, doesn’t mean it’s a nanomaterial. The smallest thing you can see at a normal reading distance is about a tenth of a millimeter, which is 1000 times bigger than the 100 nanometer cut-off we typically use to talk about nanoparticles.

A clear glass dish holds a bright white powder.

Titanium dioxide is a vivid white pigment, even as macroscopic particles.

And that’s what confuses me most here. As you can see above, titanium dioxide is white as a powder, but in that form it’s several hundred nanometers wide at minimum, if not on the scale of microns (1000 nanometers). In fact, nanoparticles of TiO2 are too small to scatter visible light and so they can’t appear white. A friend reminded me how sunscreens have switched from large TiO2 particles to actual nanoparticles precisely because it helps the sunscreen go on clearer. I’m not naive enough to think food companies wouldn’t try to cut a buck to help improve and standardize appearances, but I also don’t think food scientists are dumb enough to pay for a version of a material they can’t fulfill the purpose they’re adding it for. So TiO2 is probably used in some foods, but not on a nanoscale that radically changes it’s health properties.

But I don’t entirely blame Mother Jones. The thing is, the main reason I had a hunch the article seemed wrong is because one of my labmates at UVA has been working with TiO2 nanotubes for the last three years, and I’ve seen his samples. If I didn’t know that, and I just saw PEN include TiO2 on its list of nano additives, I would be inclined to believe it. PEN saw the Mother Jones piece and another similar article and responded by pointing out that the inventory categorized their inclusion of TiO2 in the products as having low confidence it was actually used. But their source is an environmental science paper including actual chemical analyses of food grade TiO2, so why do they give that low confidence? Also, PEN claims the CPI is something the public can use to monitor nanotechnology in products, so maybe they should rethink how confident they are in their analysis if they want to keep selling it that way.

The paper CPI references in the TiO2 claim is interesting too. That paper actually shows that most of the TiO2 is around 100 nm (figure below). But like I said, that’s kind of pushing the limit on how small the particles can be and still look white. It might be that the authors stumbled across a weird batch, as they note that in liquid products containing TiO2, less than 5% of the TiO2 could go through filters with pores that were 450 nanometers wide. Does the current process used to make food grade TiO2 end up making a lot of particles that are actually smaller than needed? Or maybe larger particles are breaking down into the smaller particles that Weir sees while in storage. This probably does need more research if other groups can replicate these results.

A histogram showing the distribution of particle sizes of TiO2. Categories go from 40 nanometers to 220 nanometers in intervals of 10. The greatest number of particles have diameters of 90-100 or 100-110 nanometers.

Distribution of TiO2 particle sizes in food grade TiO2. From Weir et al, http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es204168d?journalCode=esthag

Making Fuel Out of Seawater Is Only One Part of An Energy Solution

So I recently saw this post about a recent breakthrough the Navy made in producing fuel from water make a small round on Facebook from questionable “alternative news” site Addicting Info and it kind of set off my BS detector. First, because this story is a few months old. It actually turned out the article was from April, so part of my skepticism was unfounded. But the opening claim that this wasn’t being reported much in mainstream outlets is wrong, as several sites beat them to the punch (even FOX NEWS! Which would probably make Addicting Info’s head explode.). The other thing that struck me as odd was how the Addicting Info piece seemed to think this technology is practically ready to use right now.  That surprised me, because for nearly the last two years, my graduate research at UVA has been focused on developing materials that could help produce fuel from CO2.

This Vice article does a pretty good job of debunking the overzealous claims made by the Addicting Info piece and others like it. As Vice points out, you need electricity to make hydrogen from water. Water is pretty chemically stable in most of our everyday lives. The only way the average person ends up splitting water is if they have metal rusting, which would be a really slow way to generate hydrogen, or by putting a larger battery in water for one of those home electrolysis experiments.

The Naval Research Lab seems kind of unique among the groups looking at making fuel from CO2 in that they’re extracting hydrogen and CO2 from water as separate processes from the step where they are combined into hydrocarbons. Most of the other research in this area looks at having metal electrodes help this reaction in water (nearly any metal from the middle of the periodic table can split CO2 with enough of a negative charge) . Because of water’s previously mentioned stability, they often add a chemical that can more easily give up hydrogen. A lot of groups use potassium bicarbonate, a close relative of baking soda that has potassium instead of sodium, to help improve the conductivity of the water and because the bicarbonate ion really easily gives up hydrogen. In these set-ups, the goal is for the electricity to help the metal break off an oxygen from a CO2 to make CO, and when you get enough CO, start adding hydrogen to the molecules and linking them together.

A chemical diagram shows a CO2 molecule losing a carbon atom on a copper surface to make CO. When another CO is nearby, the two carbon atoms link together.

Carbon atoms are initially removed from CO2 molecules on a copper surface, forming CO. When CO get close to each other, they can bond together. From Gattrell, Gupta, and Co.

But basically, no matter what reaction you do, if you want to make a hydrocarbon from CO2, you need to use electricity, either to isolate hydrogen or cause the CO2 to become chemically active. As the Vice article points out, this is still perfectly useful for the Navy, because ships with nuclear reactors continually generate large amounts of electricity, but fuel for aircraft must be replenished. If you’re on land, unless you’re part of the 30% of the US that gets electricity from renewable sources or nuclear plants, you’re kind of defeating the point. Chemical reactions and industrial processes always waste some energy, so burning a fossil fuel, which emits CO2, to make electricity that would then be used to turn CO2 back into fuel would always end up with you emitting more CO2 than you started with.

However, this process (or one like it) could actually be useful in a solar or wind-based electricity grid. Wind and solar power can be sporadic; obviously, any solar grid must somehow deal with the fact that night exists, and both wind and solar power can be interrupted by the weather. (Nuclear power doesn’t have this issue, so this set-up would be irrelevant.) However, it’s also possible for solar and wind to temporarily generate more electricity than customers are using at the time. The extra electricity can be used to power this CO2-to-fuel reaction, and the fuel can be burned to provide extra power when the solar or wind plants can’t generate enough electricity on their own. This is also where the Vice article misses something important. Jet fuel can’t have methane, but methane is basically the main component of natural gas, which is burned to provide about another 30% of electricity generated in the US today. And because methane is a small molecule (one carbon atom, four hydrogen atoms) it can be easier to make than the long hydrocarbons needed for jet fuel.

Also, one thing I’m surprised I never see come up when talking about this is using this for long-term human space exploration as a way to prevent to maintain a breathable atmosphere for astronauts and to build materials. If you can build-up the carbon chains for jet fuel, you could also make the precursors to lots of plastics. The International Space Station is entirely powered by solar panels, and solar panels are typically envisioned as being part of space colonies. Generally, electricity generation shouldn’t be a major problem in any of the manned missions we’re looking at for the near future and this could be a major way to help future astronauts or space colonists generate the raw materials they need and maintain their environment.

If you want to read more about the Naval Research Lab’s processes, here are some of the journal articles they have published lately:

http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ie301006y?prevSearch=%255BContrib%253A%2BWillauer%252C%2BH%2BD%255D&searchHistoryKey= http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ie2008136?prevSearch=%255BContrib%253A%2BWillauer%252C%2BH%2BD%255D&searchHistoryKey= http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/ef4011115 http://www.nrl.navy.mil/media/news-releases/2014/scale-model-wwii-craft-takes-flight-with-fuel-from-the-sea-concept