How can I get ice off my car? An engineer who studies airborne particles shares some quick and easy techniques

If you live somewhere that gets cold in the winter, you’ve probably seen cars parked outdoors covered in a thin layer of ice on a chilly morning. But what causes this frost, and how can you get rid of it quickly?

I’m a mechanical engineering professor who studies how water vapor interacts with airborne particles under different atmospheric conditions. Frosty windshields are similar to some of the thermodynamic questions I study in the lab, and they’re also a pesky issue that I deal with every winter on my way to work.

The air in Earth’s atmosphere always contains a certain amount of water vapor, but there’s only so much water vapor the air can hold. Scientists call that limit 100% relative humidity. The dew point refers to the temperature at which relative humidity reaches 100%.

Wet air has high dew point temperature, while dry air has a low dew point temperature. With each degree drop in temperature, the air gets closer to its dew point temperature – or its water vapor carrying capacity. Any cooling after the dew point temperature has been reached causes water to condense onto surfaces, or form into fog.

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