How does Antifreeze Work?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov
Adding antifreeze to a car.
Adding antifreeze to a car.

Antifreeze is a liquid added to the cooling system of an automobile to ensure that the water within it does not freeze solid. The reason it works is that the freezing temperature of a liquid is lowered when something is dissolved in it. This something can be either a solid or a liquid. This phenomenon was originally discovered by the French scientist Francois Raoult in the late 19th century. Raoult also discovered that the degree to which the freezing point is lowered is linearly related to the number of molecules dissolved in the liquid.

Antifreeze works by preventing water molecules from freezing.
Antifreeze works by preventing water molecules from freezing.

The decrease of freezing point in diluted solutions can be explained as follows. As the temperature of the liquid decreases, the molecules making it up move more slowly and experience an attractive force between each other. In pure water, at 32°F (0°C), this attractive force is powerful enough to arrange the water molecules in a regular crystal pattern, greatly decreasing their mobility and causing the formation of ice.

In theory, anything that dissolves in water can be used as an antifreeze. In practice, there are several limiting constraints. First is that the substance should mix together with water in any ratio. Some liquids are difficult to dissolve, or crystallize at lower temperatures. Second is that the antifreeze should be inert, that is, not react chemically with anything it comes into contact with in the cooling system. Third, it should be cheap; and fourth, it should not cause the buildup of unwanted pressure within the cooling system — this means the antifreeze should have a high boiling point.

The almost universally-used substance that matches all these specifications is ethylene glycol, which has a boiling point of 387°F (197°C). A cooling system that has a 1:1 ratio between glycol and water has a freezing point of about -40°F(-40°C), ideal for the normal range of applications.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime InfoBloom contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime InfoBloom contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments

anon998144

Think of football. Water is the person moving downfield. If there is no interference, the person is free to move anywhere. Add heat and the person can speed up and run off the field (boil).

Now fill that downfield with another team (anti-freeze). That player has to dodge and jink and cannot move very fast. In order to escape the field, the person requires more energy and the water has to move faster (raise the boiling point) to escape the surface tension. (My 10 year old grandson likes this explanation.)

anon352505

Can you wash a car with antifreeze?

anon346343

Does an increase in antifreeze concentration increase or decrease operating pressure?

anon305825

How does it keep water from boiling?

anon282369

How does this process occur in regards to boiling point? anon168318 explained it much better!

anon179916

no, it is a mixture. the glycol has a freezing point lower than water. besides that, different salts are added. the salts act like a mixing agent.

anon168318

in most cases it does that through hydrogen bonding. the antifreeze molecules form hydrogen bonds that will replace the hydrogen bonds between the water molecules so the lattice of ice can no longer be formed and therefore it does not freeze.

anon109402

the glycol molecules bond with the h2o molecules, preventing them from coming together as tightly as normal h2o molecules.

anon25953

Average molecular attraction decreases, which results in a lower freezing point for a water/antifreeze mix. This is a result of the presence of the ethylene glycol (antifreeze) in the water, which hinders formation of a crystal structure (ice).

anon21841

You still haven't answered here how antifreeze actually prevents water from freezing.

anon6592

Do the antifreeze molecules interfere with water molecules binding when water is supposed to freeze? How does antifreeze actually stop the water from freezing?

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    • Adding antifreeze to a car.
      By: 85holmberg
      Adding antifreeze to a car.
    • Antifreeze works by preventing water molecules from freezing.
      By: Ioana Davies (Drutu)
      Antifreeze works by preventing water molecules from freezing.