In late 2014, parts of the UK were hit with warnings of a “weather bomb” – this included threats of ice, rain and up to 80mph winds. The warnings on the news may have prompted you to buy some new products that will make the harsh winter a little easier.
This is a list of six products that you’ll probably come across over winter. We’ve examined the chemistry of these products and how the chemicals they contain work together to keep you warm and safe over the cold season.
Antifreeze is the solution of chemicals you’ll be looking for to keep your car running smoothly over winter – it’s added to water to lower its freezing point.
Water is the coolant we use in internal combustion engines. It can solidify in cold winter months so antifreeze is useful to stop it reaching freezing point and keep it in liquid form.
Ethylene glycol is the compound that commonly makes up antifreeze. However, when ingested, ethylene glycol is converted to calcium oxalate crystals which can accumulate in vital organs and cause damage.
As a safer alternative, we supply non-toxic antifreeze which has propylene glycol as the base. This has only recently been used in antifreeze but it doesn’t have the sweet scent found with ethylene glycol, so reduces the risk of ingestion by pets or children. Unlike ethylene glycol, if propylene glycol is ingested, it doesn’t convert into calcium oxalate crystals and its only potentially hazardous by-product is produced in very small quantities.
Due to hard water in Europe, most antifreeze is developed without phosphates and contains silicates and carboxylates instead.
A de-icer is a must for every car in cold climates. You get to your car on a cold morning to find it is covered in a layer of sleet and you can’t see out of the window to drive to work. A de-icer can be sprayed on the frost to melt it, and then the remains can be scraped or wiped away.
Chemicals from the solution remain on the car surface to prevent ice from reoccurring throughout the day.
De-icers contain salts which tackle the ice. Propylene glycol is used as this compound can lower the freezing point of water. You’ll also find isopropanol and methanol in most de-icers.
Interestingly, glycol is used to de-ice planes as salts such as sodium chloride and calcium chloride are corrosive to the body of the plane.
3. Winter Tyres
All-season tyres can be risky in icy conditions. Ice can make people nervous to make car journeys, so some people choose to prepare for the weather by purchasing new tyres for their vehicle. Winter tyres are compulsory in some of the colder European countries, but are optional in the UK.
The improved grip of winter tyres prevents the car from sliding on snow or ice-covered roads, and reduces stopping distance. The compound they’re made from doesn’t stick to ice and is designed to siphon off water. Winter tyres use a softer rubber compound with a high-silica content – and they usually include more natural rubber than all-season tyres.
Silicone is increased in the rubber as it’s generally non-reactive to extreme environments and temperatures. It’s also easy to manufacture and shape.
4. Thermal Clothing
Those especially sensitive to the cold or who spend large portions of their day in a chilly environment might want to buy some thermal vests or socks to keep their body temperature steady.
The thermal material usually contains olefin fibre, which can be manufactured with polyethylene or polypropylene. Polyethylene is an ideal choice as it is a simple linear structure with repeating units, which makes it useful for intertwining fabrics.
When you need to keep warm, use polyester as the first layer of clothing – its wicking property means it has the ability to keep moisture away from your skin and keep you dry. Polyester is also weaved tightly, giving it thermal and breathable properties.
5. Hand Warmers
Hand warmers are usually reserved for those bracing extreme weather conditions; skiers, hikers and those working outdoors in cold climates.
A widely-available type of hand warmer is an air-activated option. This product contains activated carbon to disperse heat, as well as salt, water, iron and vermiculite. The exothermic reaction occurs when the packet is opened and iron oxidises upon reacting with oxygen, with the salt and water acting as catalysts.
Hand warmers can typically produce heat for up to 10 hours. The packet is usually made from polypropylene, which is useful for allowing air to permeate the ingredients while holding in moisture.
6. Road Salt
An icy path can be daunting to walk on, as no one wants to be that person that slips on the ice and embarrasses themselves. In wintery conditions, roads are usually coated with salt to improve safety.
Commonly known as grit, the rock salt used is sodium chloride. This freezes at -18°C so an alternative is required if a temperature reaches as low as this. It can be toxic so it presents a danger to pets that walk on the grit.
More recently, other salts such as calcium chloride and magnesium chloride (which both produce exothermic reactions) have been used.
The reaction works because when the salt mixes with water on the roads, it creates a saline solution. Saline solutions freeze at lower temperatures so it prevents the further formation of snow or ice on roads.
Whether or not you’re hoping for a White Christmas, keeping these products close by will minimise your risk of accidents or injuries.
Stay safe over winter and make sure you’ve taken out the necessary precautions so you have the chemicals that can help protect you.