Exploring ice core by X-ray tomography

The results of the research published in Journal of Colloid and Interface Science
visualization of a droplet by XCT

Despite ubiquitous, ice formation is a complex process with many open questions. For example, is there a way to decrease the ice adhesion to a material, with the goal of designing novel icephobic surfaces that can ideally remain ice-free?

The ambition to design and fabricate such icephobic surfaces is one of the core objectives of SURFICE (Smart surface design for efficient ice protection and control), a European Training Network funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under the Marie Skłodowska-Curie actions.

One of the main challenges to investigate ice and its interaction with other materials is to visualize its internal structure, as well as the interface between ice and a solid surface: however, in most of the conditions these are optically inaccessible. X-ray Computed Tomography (XCT) can provide unprecedented insights into the internal (porosity) and interfacial structures, and thus evaluate how material properties can be tuned to affect the ice adhesion. Assessing the potential of X-ray tomography for ice  has promoted the international collaboration between the Department of Materials at KU Leuven (Belgium), the company FT Technologies UK (England), and the Department of Materials Science at the University of Milano-Bicocca, leading to the recent publication “Internal and interfacial microstructure characterization of ice droplets on surfaces by X-ray computed tomography” in the Journal of Colloid and Interface Science (Impact Factor 9.965, Journal Citation Report (Clarivate Analytics, 2021)).

“We are very proud of this study, as this is the first peer-reviewed scientific publication within the frame of SURFICE, and it demonstrates the benefit of X-ray to explore the complexity of ice structure” said Prof. Carlo Antonini, who leads the Surface Engineering and Fluid Interfaces Laboratory (SEFI Lab) in the Department of Materials Science, at the University of Milano-Bicocca.

“This study also demonstrates how essential international collaborations are to advance science and enable novel technological applications. It was very important to have both academic and industrial partners involved in the study from the early stages of the project.”

The collaboration between KU Leuven and the University of Milano-Bicocca is even wider than the SURFICE project: the postgraduate programme in Materials Science at the two universities is part of a European network of International Master Degrees in Sustainable Materials, within a European project of Dual Master Degrees tracks in Sustainable Materials, supported by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). “Indeed, the idea to conduct X-ray tomography came out first while defining possible Master thesis projects for our students in Leuven and Milano-Bicocca” continues Prof. Antonini. “The student who selected and conducted this thesis project, Laurens Snels, who is the first author of the study, is a local student from Belgium. Nonetheless, other students enrolled in the double-degree program have been working and continue to work on master thesis projects related to ice and icephobic surfaces. In the future, we will continue to offer these opportunities to students from Leuven and Milano-Bicocca, further strengthening the international collaborations between the two universities.”