BYU chemistry professor highlighted in PBS Terra mini-documentary

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Professor Brian Woodfield was asked by a PBS mini-documentary crew to explain some of the science behind how ice farmers in Colorado have supercooled water. Woodfield worked with a small team of students, including Grace Neilsen and Peter Rosen, to help him prepare for the demonstration of supercooling water for the cameras. (PBS)

BYU chemistry professor Brian Woodfield was recently featured in a PBS Terra mini-documentary focused on the world’s largest manmade ice wall in Colorado.

Woodfield was sought out by the PBS film crew because of his expansive knowledge on the unique sciences behind the properties of water and supercooling. He and a team of students were asked to prepare supercooled water demonstrations for the PBS team to film. 

The PBS documentary covered the incredible Ouray Ice Park manmade ice climbing walls in the Uncompahgre Gorge in Colorado. The Ouray Ice Park website says, “Beginning in November, ice farmers spray water down the canyon walls of the Uncompahgre Gorge resulting in the creation of awe-inspiring walls of ice.”

The documentary showed the ice farmers utilizing the supercooling water technique through over 250 sprinklers to create more than 100 manmade ice climbs that climbers and tourists from all over the world come to see.

Supercooling water is a low-temperature phenomenon where pure water is cooled very slowly until the temperature hits below zero degrees Celsius, Woodfield said. Supercooled water needs something to form around, like dust, pollen or other ice molecules. If the water and the chosen surfaces are extremely clean, the water has nothing to form around to turn into ice.

In his documentary interview, Woodfield said if a little piece of ice is dropped into a container holding the purified water, “the water molecules in the vicinity of that ice, as it enters, start bonding and it just (freezes) as fast as possible.”

Woodfield said the ice walls are a slow, natural process and a massive undertaking. “How fast you do it though governs how well-organized it goes in. The faster you freeze it, the more flaws that crystal is going to have.”

The walls are well-made crystals, so they are stronger and harder to break. Freezing gradually over time is key to creating the ice that can support climbers, he said.

The Ouray Ice Park in Ouray, Colorado is home to over 100 manmade ice climbs that climbers from all over the world travel to. BYU professor Brian Woodfield was approached by a PBS film crew to talk about the science behind how these ice walls are made. (Michael Walter/Ouray Ice Park)

Woodfield had his student team prepare for filming with the PBS crew on Dec. 21, 2020 to create demonstrations of supercooling water gradually or quickly.

Senior biochemistry major Peter Rosen said the team prepared for the film crew’s arrival the entire December 2020 finals week. Though it may have been an unfortunately busy time to prepare the supercooling presentations, Rosen said it was a very enjoyable experience.

“The thing about the demonstrations was that they were really finicky, so it was really gratifying to have (the film crew) really appreciate all the work we had put in,” he said.

BYU biochemistry senior Grace Neilsen said Woodfield worked alongside the lab students to consistently supercool water on demand. It was important to make it reproducible. Woodfield’s students sent progress videos to the PBS film team as they prepared for their actual visit.

Rosen said once the team had figured out how to consistently supercool water, it was fun to decide which containers would look the coolest when the water was poured in and other flashy, aesthetic aspects of the presentations.

The PBS crew came to the lab for a couple of hours to film the team’s different presentations of supercooled water in different tubes, flasks and beakers. Neilsen said the visitors were kind and really excited to be working with the BYU team.

Professor Brian Woodfield was asked by a PBS mini-documentary crew to explain some of the science behind how ice farmers in Colorado have supercooled water. Woodfield worked with a small team of students, including Grace Neilsen and Peter Rosen, to help him prepare for the demonstration of supercooling water for the cameras. (Grace Neilsen)

One of the reasons Neilsen said she loves studying different aspects of science is the “aha” moments — the moments when everything clicks together and the result is meaningful.

“The first time I saw the supercooling work, I felt like a little kid who’s introduced to something new and wonderful. It felt so special to see it for the first time — it was a definite ‘aha’ moment,” she said.

Rosen said something he’s experienced by learning from Woodfield is the gratification of coming up with answers and explanations to questions no one else ever has.

“Students often ask me how I’ve learned or know so much. I say, ‘because I’m old,'” Woodfield said. “If someone is lucky enough that their brain doesn’t forget things and you’re always asking questions, you’ll learn marvelous things over a lifetime — and I have.”

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