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Nucleate and Nucleation

Nucleate and nucleation

A nucleation event is the process of condensation or aggregation (gathering) that results in the formation of larger drops or crystals around a material that acts as a structural nucleus around which such condensation or aggregation proceeds. Moreover, the introduction of such structural nuclei can often induce the processes of condensation or crystal growth. Accordingly, nucleation is one of the ways that a phase transition can take place in a material.

In addition to an importance in explaining a wide variety of geophysical and geochemical phenomenaincluding crystal formationthe principles of nucleation were used in cloud seeding weather modification experiments where nuclei of inert materials were dispersed into clouds with the hopes of inducing condensation and rainfall.

During a phase transition, a material changes from one form to another. For example, ice melts to form liquid water , or a liquid boils to form a gas. Phase transitions occur due to changes in temperature . Certain transitions occur smoothly throughout the whole material, while others happen suddenly at different points in the material. When the transitions occur suddenly, a bubble forms at the point where the transition began, with the new phase inside the bubble and the old phase outside. The bubble expands, converting more and more of the material into the new phase. The creation of a bubble is called a nucleation event.

Phase transitions are grouped into two categories, known as first order transitions and second order transitions. Nucleation events happen in first order transitions. In this kind of transition, there is an obstacle to the transition occurring smoothly. A prime example is condensation of water vapor to form liquid water. Condensation requires that many water molecules collide and stick together almost simultaneously. This requirement for simultaneous collisions presents a temporary but measurable barrier to the formation of a bubble of liquid phase. Following formation, the bubble expands as more water molecules strike the surface of the bubble and are absorbed into the liquid phase. Because of the obstacle to the phase transition, a liquid may exist in its gaseous state even though the temperature is well below the boiling point.

A liquid in this state is said to be supercooled. Accordingly, in order for a liquid to be supercooled, it must be pure, because dust or other impurities act as nucleation centers. If the liquid is very pure, however, it may remain super-cooled for a long time. A supercooled state is termed metastable due to its relatively long lifetime.

The other type of phase transition is called second order, and it proceeds simultaneously throughout the whole material. An example of a second order transition is the melting of a solid. As the temperature rises, the magnitude of the thermal vibrations of molecules causes the solid to break apart into a liquid form. As long as the solid is in thermal equilibrium and the melting occurs slowly, the transition takes place at the same time everywhere in the solid, rather than taking place through nucleation events at isolated points.

See also Bowen's reaction series; Chemical bonds and physical properties; Chemical elements; Chemistry; Crystals and crystallography; Minerals; Precipitation

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