We heated a cup of water in a microwave oven for 2-1/2 minutes and then added a …

We heated a cup of water in a microwave oven for 2-1/2 minutes and then added a spoonful of sugar to it. A rush of tiny bubbles ensued. Did the sugar crystals nucleate boiling water molecules that were trapped by surrounding cooler molecules or did they nucleate the release of dissolved air? — VC

When you heated the water in the microwave oven, you raised its temperature above its boiling temperature, yet it did not boil. While the water was hot enough to boil—that is, any steam bubble that formed in this hot water would have a pressure at least equal to atmospheric pressure and would not be crushed by the surrounding air—the water was having a difficult time forming steam bubbles. For a bubble to appear, several water molecules must simultaneously break free of their neighbors to form a bubble nucleus. Once this nucleation has occurred, additional water molecules can evaporate into the bubble, making it grow. This nucleation is rare in pure water near its boiling temperature; in most cases it is assisted by hot spots at the bottom of a pot on the stove or by imperfections in the container holding the water. But when you heat water in a glass or glazed ceramic container in a microwave oven, there are no hot spots or surface imperfections to nucleate the bubbles. The water superheats above its boiling temperature. When you add sugar crystals to this superheated water, the crystal’s sharp edges and points assist the nucleation of steam bubbles and the water boils violently.

Your suggestions for why the bubbles appear raise two interesting points. First, in a thermal system such as hot water, you can’t identify some molecules as being boiling hot and others as being cooler—temperature is a property of the entire system and not of individual molecules. However, at a given instant, there are molecules with more energy than their neighbors and it is these energetic molecules that may break free of their neighbors to form a bubble nucleus.

Second, water often contains dissolved gases and these gases come out of solution when the water is heated. While many of the gas molecules leave through the water’s surface, some of them may leave as bubbles from within the water. This gas bubble formation requires nucleation as well, which is why these bubbles often appear on the inner surfaces of a metal pot on the stove—flaws in the pot’s surface assist bubble nucleation. But these gas bubbles aren’t what you observed; there just isn’t that much dissolve gas. You can prove that the bubbles you observe are steam: repeat the experiment several times with the same water. Each time you heat the water and add sugar, it bubbles wildly—something that wouldn’t be possible if you were simply releasing dissolved gases from the water.

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