Shatterproof

Watch: Elastic ice defies what we know about this brittle material

Peizhen Xu, Bowen Cui, Xin Guo and Limin Tong, Zhejiang Universit

tarninabarn via Giphy

For a moment, think about how ice feels.

It’s cold, hard, and either chips or shatters when it breaks.

Shutterstock

But when ice grows in the right formation, it can be springy and flexible.

That’s what researchers in China and the U.S. recently observed when they grew single-crystal microfibers of ice.

This finding was published on July 9 in the journal Science.

They look like super-thin ice ropes — almost too small to see when held between two fingers.

Peizhen Xu, Bowen Cui, Xin Guo and Limin Tong, Zhejiang University

But they’re surprisingly strong and elastic.

Here’s a tiny piece of ice up close:

Shutterstock

At -150 degrees Celcius, the ice could nearly bend into a circle.

Peizhen Xu, Bowen Cui, Xin Guo and Limin Tong, Zhejiang University

Shutterstock

The researchers made ice pieces that ranged from 800 nanometers to 10 micrometers in diameter.

Shutterstock

The pieces were created in a controlled lab environment, where researchers used electric fields to manipulate the ice’s growth pattern so it formed into a single, flexible crystal.

Since the ice microfibers had surprising properties, the researchers would like to continue probing what the crystals are capable of and how they interact with outside forces.

Study author Limin Tong tells Inverse “many physical properties of ice are still unknown today.” But the demonstrated strength of ice microfibers might mean they can build small structures from these lab-grown ice crystals.

Shutterstock

“We can make microscale functional structures or components [like ice springs, gears, and optical chips] out of ice microfibers or other ice structures alike.”

Limin Tong, study author and professor at Zhejiang University.

Shutterstock

Giphy

This phenomenon might redefine what we think we know about a ubiquitous substance.

Planet Observer/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Erland Schulson, director of the Ice Research Laboratory at Dartmouth University, is the author of a related perspective article. He tells Inverse this discovery contributes to our understanding of the mechanical behavior of ice and shows “the potential for improving other crystalline materials.”

“The big picture takeaway for me is that crystalline materials, like ice, when processed to be free from defects, exhibit mechanical behavior that is very close to the theoretical limit,” Schulson says.

“Other nominally brittle crystalline materials could exhibit the same behavior if processed appropriately, leading to very strong and springy fibers.”

Getty Images

Read more stories about science here.

Peizhen Xu, Bowen Cui, Xin Guo and Limin Tong, Zhejiang University