Time-lapse video of lab-grown snowflakes

Back in December, researchers at Caltech posted a research paper to arXiv that attempts to explain why the shape and structure of snowflakes change significantly depending on relatively small shifts in temperature.

In order to study this, they had to grow snowflakes in laboratory conditions. It was not an easy thing to figure out how to do. On his Snowcrystals page, physicist Kenneth G. Libbrecht show you how it's done.

There are many ways to grow snowflakes, but my favorite starts with something called a vapor diffusion chamber. This is essentially nothing more than an insulated box that is kept cold on the bottom (say -40C) and hot on the top (say +40C). A source of water is placed at the top, and water vapor diffuses down through the box, producing supersaturated air. The cold, supersatured air at the center of the chamber is ideal for growing ice crystals.

While working with this diffusion chamber, we rediscovered a wonderful technique for growing synthetic snow crystals that was first published in 1963 by meteorologist Basil Mason and collaborators [1]. One starts by putting a wire into the diffusion chamber from below, so that small ice crystals begin growing on the wire's tip. Then apply a high voltage to the wire, say +2000 volts, and voila -- slender ice needles begin growing from the wire.

Video Link


  1. I met Libbrecht once, he’s an interesting character, he runs part of the LIGO interferometer and is in a chairman position at CalTech. (His wife is in charge of some tanks of nuclear waste at the Hanford site. The whole ground there is contaminated with radioactive waste, such that any running surface water is a hazard. They have toilets that incinerate your effluent rather than risk running water pipes that could burst….) apparently he was also the roommate of the guy who made DriveSpace back in the day when we cared about 640K and MS-DOS 6.22. – apparently that guy sold it to MicroSoft for a couple of hundred mil. Right before storage became cheap and disk compression irrelevant…

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