What is the nature of the dense fog that forms over the surface of liquid nitrogen?
This is a very good question. My students ask this very same question when I bring
Liquid Nitrogen into my classroom.
As you know Liquid Nitrogen is very, very cold. It boils at -196°C (or -321°F, or 77K)! As you also know the air in the room you are sitting in reading this
has water vapor in it. Water vapor is invisible.
When you take a shower and your bathroom fills with fog you are actually seeing
condensed water vapor. This is really tiny specks of liquid water suspended in the
air in your bathroom. This happens because the hot water you used to take a shower
came out in a fine spray and some of it evaporated. Because your bathroom was
cooler outside of your shower that evaporated water quickly condensed. Lots of it
condensed on your mirror, enough to make small drops.
This same thing happens above the Liquid Nitrogen. This stuff is so cold that the
water in the air above it is able to give away enough of its energy so that water
vapor will condense out of the air. When it does so these tiny bits of condensed
water stay suspended in the air making the dense cloud of fog above the liquid
This same thing happens with dry ice. The reason the fog stays close to the ground
is because, well, it is cold and because water vapor is more dense than air.
Image is copyright Carleton College Chemistry Department. Click here to check out their fun page.
Tom Young, B.S., Science Teacher, Whitehouse, TX
'I believe there is no philosophical high-road in science, with epistemological signposts. No, we are in a jungle and find our way by trial and error, building our road behind us as we proceed.'