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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 May 22;115(21):5383-5388. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1800294115. Epub 2018 May 7.

Magnetic control of heterogeneous ice nucleation with nanophase magnetite: Biophysical and agricultural implications.

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Earth-Life Science Institute, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Meguro, 152-8550 Tokyo, Japan;
Department of Systems and Control Engineering, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Meguro, 152-8552 Tokyo, Japan.
Earth-Life Science Institute, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Meguro, 152-8550 Tokyo, Japan.
Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 91125.
Robotics Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA 15213.


In supercooled water, ice nucleation is a stochastic process that requires ∼250-300 molecules to transiently achieve structural ordering before an embryonic seed crystal can nucleate. This happens most easily on crystalline surfaces, in a process termed heterogeneous nucleation; without such surfaces, water droplets will supercool to below -30 °C before eventually freezing homogeneously. A variety of fundamental processes depends on heterogeneous ice nucleation, ranging from desert-blown dust inducing precipitation in clouds to frost resistance in plants. Recent experiments have shown that crystals of nanophase magnetite (Fe3O4) are powerful nucleation sites for this heterogeneous crystallization of ice, comparable to other materials like silver iodide and some cryobacterial peptides. In natural materials containing magnetite, its ferromagnetism offers the possibility that magneto-mechanical motion induced by external oscillating magnetic fields could act to disrupt the water-crystal interface, inhibiting the heterogeneous nucleation process in subfreezing water and promoting supercooling. For this to act, the magneto-mechanical rotation of the particles should be higher than the magnitude of Brownian motions. We report here that 10-Hz precessing magnetic fields, at strengths of 1 mT and above, on ∼50-nm magnetite crystals dispersed in ultrapure water, meet these criteria and do indeed produce highly significant supercooling. Using these rotating magnetic fields, we were able to elicit supercooling in two representative plant and animal tissues (celery and bovine muscle), both of which have detectable, natural levels of ferromagnetic material. Tailoring magnetic oscillations for the magnetite particle size distribution in different tissues could maximize this supercooling effect.


biogenic magnetite; food freezing; ice crystal nucleation; magnetic supercooling; nanoparticles

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