Chemistry Science Fair Project
Is it possible to make snowflake-like crystals with other substances than water?

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Title: Is it possible to make snowflake-like crystals with other substances than water?
Subject: Chemistry
Grade level: High School - Grades 10-12
Academic Level: Ordinary
Project Type: Experimental
Cost: Medium
Awards: Second place, Canada Wide Virtual Science Fair (2004)
Affiliation: Canada Wide Virtual Science Fair (VSF)
Year: 2004
Description: The other substances chosen were acetic acid and glycerol because of their ideal freezing points: 16.7ºC for acetic acid, 17.8ºC for glycerol. There was also a control with water.

Acetic Acid

Acetic acid, also known as ethanoic acid, is an organic chemical compound, giving vinegar its sour taste and pungent smell. Its structural formula is represented as CH3COOH. Pure, water-free acetic acid (glacial acetic acid) is a colourless liquid that absorbs water from the environment (hygroscopy), and freezes below 16.7 °C (62 °F) to a colourless crystalline solid. Acetic acid is corrosive, and its vapour causes irritation to the eyes, a dry and burning nose, sore throat and congestion to the lungs. It is a weak acid because at standard conditions for temperature and pressure the dissociated acid exists in equilibrium with the undissociated form in aqueous solutions, in contrast to strong acids, which are fully dissociated.

Glacial acetic acid is a trivial name for water-free acetic acid. Similar to the German name Eisessig (literally, ice-vinegar), the name comes from the ice-like crystals that form slightly below room temperature at 16.7 °C (about 62 °F).

The crystal structure of acetic acid shows that the molecules pair up into dimers connected by hydrogen bonds. The dimers can also be detected in the vapour at 120 °C. They also occur in the liquid phase in dilute solutions in non-hydrogen-bonding solvents, and a certain extent in pure acetic acid, but are disrupted by hydrogen-bonding solvents. The dissociation enthalpy of the dimer is estimated at 65.0–66.0 kJ/mol, and the dissociation entropy at 154–157 J mol–1 K–1. This dimerization behaviour is shared by other lower carboxylic acids.


Glycerol is a chemical compound also commonly called glycerin or glycerine. It is a colorless, odorless, viscous liquid that is widely used in pharmaceutical formulations. Glycerol is sweet-tasting and of low toxicity. Glycerol has three hydrophilic hydroxyl groups that are responsible for its solubility in water and its hygroscopic nature. Its surface tension is 64.00 mN/m at 20 °C , and it has a temperature coefficient of -0.0598 mN/(m K). The glycerol substructure is a central component of many lipids.


Snow crystals form when tiny supercooled cloud droplets (approx 10μm in diameter) freeze. These droplets are able to remain liquid at temperatures colder than 0°C because in order to freeze, a few molecules in the liquid droplet need to get together by chance to form an arrangement close to that in an ice lattice; then the droplet freezes around this 'nucleus'. Experiments show that this 'homogeneous' nucleation of cloud droplets only occurs at temperatures colder than -35°C. In warmer clouds an aerosol particle or 'ice nucleus' must be present in (or in contact with) the droplet to act as a nucleus. Our understanding of what particles make efficient ice nuclei is poor - what we do know is they are very rare compared to that cloud condensation nuclei which liquid droplets form on. Clays, desert dust and biological particles may be effective, although to what extent is unclear. Artificial nuclei include Silver Iodide and dry ice, and these form the basis of cloud seeding.

Once a droplet has frozen, it grows in the supersaturated environment (air saturated with respect to liquid water is always supersaturated with respect to ice) and grows by diffusion of water molecules in the air (vapour) onto the ice crystal surface where they are deposited. Because the droplets are so much more numerous than the ice crystals (because of the relative numbers of ice vs droplet nuclei) the crystals are able to grow to hundreds of micrometres or millimetres in size at the expense of the water droplets (the Wegner-Bergeron-Findeison process). The corresponding depletion of water vapour causes the droplets to evaporate, meaning that the ice crystals effectively grow at the droplets' expense. These large crystals are an efficient source of precipitation, since they fall through the atmosphere due to their weight, and may collide and stick together in clusters (aggregates). These aggregates are snowflakes, and are usually the type of ice particle which falls at the ground. The exact details of the sticking mechanism remains controversial (and probably there are different mechanisms active in different clouds), possibilities include mechanical interlocking, sintering, electrostatic attraction as well as the existence of a 'sticky' liquid-like layer on the crystal surface.

The individual ice crystals often have an hexagonal symmetry. Although the ice is clear scattering of light by the crystal facets and hollows/imperfections mean that the crystals often appear white in colour due to small ice particles are diffuse reflecting of all spectrum of light.

Ice crystals formed in the appropriate conditions can often be thin and flat. These planar crystals may be simple hexagons, or if the supersaturation is high enough, develop branches and dendritic (fern-like) features and have six approximately identical arms, as per the iconic 'snowflake' popularised by Wilson Bentley. The 6-fold symmetry arises from the hexagonal crystal structure of ordinary ice, the branch formation is produced by unstable growth, with deposition occurring preferentially near the tips of branches.

The shape of the snowflake is determined broadly by the temperature and humidity at which it forms. Rarely, at a temperature of around −2 °C (28 °F), snowflakes can form in threefold symmetry — triangular snowflakes. The most common snow particles are visibly irregular, although near-perfect snowflakes may be more common in pictures because they are more visually appealing.

Planar crystals (thin and flat) grow in air between 0 °C (32 °F) and −3 °C (27 °F). Between −3 °C (27 °F) and −8 °C (18 °F), the crystals will form needles or hollow columns or prisms (long thin pencil-like shapes). From −8 °C (18 °F) to −22 °C (−8 °F) the habit goes back to plate like, often with branched or dendritic features. Note that the maximum difference in vapour pressure between liquid and ice is at approx. −15 °C (5 °F) where crystals grow most rapidly at the expense of the liquid droplets. At temperatures below −22 °C (−8 °F), the crystal habit again becomes column-like again, although many more complex habits also form such as side-planes, bullet-rosettes and also planar types depending on the conditions and ice nuclei.

Interestingly, if a crystal has started forming in a column growth regime, say at around −5 °C (23 °F), and then falls into the warmer plate-like regime, plate or dendritic crystals sprout at the end of the column producing so called 'capped columns'.

There is a widely held belief that no two snowflakes are alike. Strictly speaking, it is extremely unlikely for any two macroscopic objects in the universe to contain an identical molecular structure; but there are, nonetheless, no known scientific laws that prevent it. In a more pragmatic sense, it's more likely—albeit not much more—that two snowflakes are virtually identical if their environments were similar enough, either because they grew very near one another, or simply by chance. The American Meteorological Society has reported that matching snow crystals were discovered in Wisconsin in 1988 by Nancy Knight of the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The crystals were not flakes in the usual sense but rather hollow hexagonal prisms.

Source: Wikipedia (All text is available under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License)

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