Why does increased pressure lower the melting point of ice? Can we use the First Law of Thermodynamics to explain?
Asked by: Shawn Tee
For most substances, increasing the pressure when a system is in equilibrium between liquid and
solid phases will increase the phase transition temperature. Water is one of a few special
substances for which the pressure lowers the temperature of transition. The basic reason is that
water actually expands when it goes from the liquid to solid phase. In textbooks you will find the
explanation for these properties by using the Clapeyron-Clausius formula, but it is perhaps most
readily explained using LeChatelier's principle.
This principle states that when a system is in equilibrium, any external changes that try to take
it out of equilibrium (like applying pressure to ice) will cause the system to adjust in a way to
counteract that change. This is a general property of what we mean by 'equilibrium' so it probably
derives more from the Second Law of Thermodynamics ('equilibrium is the state in which entropy is
maximized') than the First Law -- though perhaps a more creative individual could find a good way
to explain your question using that law too. In this case, if you increase the pressure on the ice
the ice-water system wants to try to lower it again. It can do that by making itself fit into a
smaller volume. But since water fills a smaller volume when it's liquid, rather than solid, it will
go to a lower melting point -- allowing more solid to become liquid.
Answered by: Brent Nelson, M.A. Physics, Ph.D. Student, UC Berkeley
'There comes a time when the mind takes a higher plane of knowledge but can never prove how it got there. All great discoveries have involved such a leap. The important thing is not to stop questioning.'