Placed in equivalent freezers, would a liter of water or a liter of lava turn from liquid to solid first? (question from a 6 year old)

Based on this page in a “Blaze” book, my six year old asked “which would win?” between water and lava. On further investigation, we refined the question to: which would turn solid first in similar conditions, a liter of room temperature water or a liter of volcanic lava?

From “Nickelodeon Amazing Adventures”

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    $\begingroup$ Starting temperature for each would be good to know. Good book though. $\endgroup$
    – user98623
    Oct 19, 2020 at 2:17
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    $\begingroup$ Paging Randall Monroe.... $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2020 at 13:49
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    $\begingroup$ I would think a truck named "Blaze" would prefer the lava to water... $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2020 at 2:44
  • $\begingroup$ Do you really mean "based on"? I think "inspired by" might be a better description of asking this other question, separate from what's happening on that page. (Perhaps that phrasing is why you got an answer that analyzes the situation on the page, not your question. The heat energy per mass needed to boil water to steam is even higher than the energy needed to melt it (or conversely, energy it needs to release when freezing).) $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2020 at 15:03
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    $\begingroup$ The fridge would melt first $\endgroup$
    – Bohemian
    Oct 21, 2020 at 5:34

3 Answers 3


You've got the right idea — you want to simplify the problem — but I don't think you're using quite the right simplification. Take a look at the book's set-up of the situation, and ask yourself how the water is stopping the lava. You'll see the idea is that we're using liquid water, not ice, to solidify the lava.

So your question should really be: How much heat do we need to absorb from a liter of lava to turn it into a solid, and how much heat can a liter of water at room temperature absorb before it turns to steam? If the latter is larger than the former, then a liter of water can cool a liter of lava to the point where it solidifies before the water all changes into steam.

[I'm using "heat" when I should really be using "thermal energy", but this is for a $6$ y.o., so I'm keeping it simple.]

First, let's do the calculation for water. Here (since it's for a $6$ y.o.), I'm not going to show all the steps in the calculations:

Energy to heat $\pu{1 L}$ liquid water at room temp ($25 \,\pu{^{\circ}C}$ ) to $100 \,\pu{^{\circ}C}$ = $\pu{75 kcal}$

Energy to turn $\pu{1 L}$ liquid water to steam at $100 \,\pu{^{\circ}C}$ = $\pu{533 kcal}$

Total = $\pu{608 kcal}$

According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lava, lava is typically $700 \,\pu{^{\circ}C}$ to $1200 \,\pu{^{\circ}C}$, so let's call it $1000 \,\pu{^{\circ}C}$.

And, using this source (https://ocw.mit.edu/courses/earth-atmospheric-and-planetary-sciences/12-109-petrology-fall-2005/lecture-notes/Nov3notes.pdf), let's assume it melts at $900 \,\pu{^{\circ}C}$ (there's actually a wide range of lava types, and thus a wide range of lava temps and melting points).

Density of lava = $\pu{3.1 \frac{g}{cm^3}}$, so $\pu{1 L}$ lava weighs $\pu{3100 g}$

Energy released when $\pu{1 L}$ lava cools from $1000 \,\pu{^{\circ}C}$ to $900 \,\pu{^{\circ}C}$ = $\pu{93 kcal}$

Energy released when $\pu{1 L}$ lava solidifies at $900 \,\pu{^{\circ}C}$ = $\pu{310 kcal}$

Total = $\pu{403 kcal}$

So, based on the above, $\pu{1 L}$ of water is enough to solidify: $$\pu{1 L} \times \frac{\pu{608 kcal}}{\pu{403 kcal}} \approx \pu{1.5 L of lava}.$$

Finally, why does the water win? The main reason is that the water is going between a liquid and a gas, while the lava is going between a solid and a liquid. And, in general, it takes much more energy to change liquids into gases than solids into liquids, because in the former case you are pulling the molecules completely apart from each other.

But I said it takes "much more energy" to change a liquid to a gas than a solid to a liquid, yet the difference here is only a factor of $1.5$. The discrepancy is because in this case you're not comparing masses of water and lava, you're comparing volumes (and for the same volume, the mass of lava is $3.1$ x greater). Thus, if you do it on a mass basis, $\pu{1 kg}$ of water is enough to solidify $\pu{6 kg}$ of lava (because, while $\pu{1 L}$ of water weighs $\pu{1 kg}$, $\pu{1.5 L}$ of lava weighs $\pu{6 kg}$).

[For these quantities, mass is typically a more fundamental basis of comparison than volume, which is why heat capacities, heats of fusion, and heats of vaporization are usually quoted on a mass basis. When you see the term "specific", as in "specific heat capacity, that means "per unit mass". Of course, one can also use a number basis (moles).]

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    $\begingroup$ Oh dear, why isn’t the calorie dead yet? D= $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Oct 19, 2020 at 9:41
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    $\begingroup$ @Jan Using calories here surprisingly makes sense, because it directly involves heating water, which the calorie was based around. Not my favorite unit, though. $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2020 at 15:04
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    $\begingroup$ This was a really interesting answer! I was I expected the ratio of water to lava to be closer to 1:1. It didn’t answer my exact question, but I’ll share your answer with my son nonetheless. $\endgroup$
    – T.D. Smith
    Oct 19, 2020 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ @T.D.Smith Right, but in your question you explained that your son asked "which would win" based on the picture in th Blaze book. And that picture shows liquid water vs. liquid lava. So, as I explained in my post, your refinement of the question, which is about ice vs lava, isn't the right refinement to answer your son's question, because it doesn't address the specific set-up your son asked about. So while I didn't answer your question, I answered your son's, which was what I thought was your question's purpose. $\endgroup$
    – theorist
    Oct 19, 2020 at 16:35
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    $\begingroup$ @theorist I shared your answer with my son. He said it made sense (and explained some of it back to me) and then theorized what the rest of the lava coming down the mountain would do (his guess was form a wall when it hits the hardened lava). $\endgroup$
    – T.D. Smith
    Oct 20, 2020 at 13:34

Good question

You need to specify the conditions a bit more completely:

  • At 1 °C, the water would never freeze, while the molten lava might in an hour.

  • At -50 °C, not uncommon near Mt. Erebus, an uninformed guess on my part is that water would freeze first... depending:

    • What is the shape of the sample
    • Since water might freeze first on top (since below 4 °C, it is less dens as it gets colder), would that block off some loss of heat?
    • On the other hand, the lava might also freeze first on top, since it's viscous and might not sink.
    • What type of lava are you discussing? Aa or pahoehoe? One is much more viscous than the other.
    • What is the thermal conductivity of water and of rock?

However, the two of you have asked an interesting question that should be interesting to explore!

  • What is the environment of Mt. Erebus?
  • What effect does the shape of the container have on freezing? ? You and your offspring might experiment with a cubic container (1 liter = 10 cm/edge) and with a wide, flat pan, into which you pour a liter of water.
  • What is the initial temperature? 23 °C? Explore the Mpemba effect, in which, counterintuitively, hot water can freeze before cold.
  • What is the melting point of common rocks and minerals? You might try to melt some, such as salt (rock salt is a mineral) or quartz, with a propane torch or alcohol lamp, taking safety precautions
    • Hot rock can "pop" and shatter, sending pieces across the room.
    • Wear a face mask, and perform the experiment outdoors, with plenty of water handy should one get burned!

There is a table showing the temperature at which some minerals melt or convert to others, Bowen's Reaction Series, and the link is nicely illustrated, perhaps not too advanced to pique the interest of a six-year old.

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    $\begingroup$ No credible studies have confirmed the Mpemba effect though $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2020 at 21:49
  • $\begingroup$ I am curious to try your rock salt experiment. $\endgroup$
    – T.D. Smith
    Oct 20, 2020 at 13:35
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    $\begingroup$ @RomanOdaisky, that would be a good subject for controlled experimentation then... something a six year old child could do, with parental guidance. It's not the answer, but the process, that is important here. $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2020 at 18:08

The thermodynamics involved might overwhelm the child, but the question is a good one. It shows the child has taken the information in the book and re-applied it to a new problem (the stated question was about freezing and has nothing to do with steam, contrary to a previous answer). He seemingly already understands that the cold water has cooled and frozen (solidified) the lava. He has moved ahead and designed a new experiment to test the differences between the rates of change of two different materials and how much each one would need to change state to a solid.

This is a golden opportunity to explain "heat", rates of change, and state-change in general terms, rather than needing a hard answer.

Disclaimer: I am an armchair scientist/engineer, but I love this stuff (until the greek symbols show up).

The real consideration is how much heat does it take to change the state of each material and how fast it can move. Well, "it depends on a few things", is the answer. But that is not a bummer if you can follow up with some basic and important concepts, which is the real gist of the question, and this leads to a great discussion: thermal energy transfer, states of matter and state change based on temperature. You may or may not want to omit pressure from that discussion, depending on this child's understanding of science. If omitting, then:

Discuss that water has a 100C range between frozen and gas. Magma has (I don't know offhand, but it is going to be a LOT more -- how hot does it need to be to vaporize?).

So it depends on where the material started: Each material will gain or lose heat at a certain rate. the temperature in the freezer can be considered constant (if the kid is a genius, let them know that the magma will heat up the freezer a bit, and the water less so, but it will). This will open the door to the critical effect here: heat transfer.

From there, you can discuss the idea that if the magma starts at 1000C, but gets to its freezing point faster than water that started at some temperature gets to its own freezing point, then the magma will freeze first. But at a starting point higher than that, it will not freeze first. And so forth.

You can use the analogy of two buckets with different sized holes in them. Even if one bucket is bigger to start out, if you make a hole in the bottom that is the size of the whole bottom, it will clearly empty first. If the holes are about the same size, but there is more water in one bucket than the other, then... you get the idea. So there are two factors: how much water (heat) is left to lose before empty (freezing), and how big is the hole in the bucket. Now, instead of water, the thing that is emptying out of each bucket is heat.

Again, the two takeaways here are:

  1. The concepts of heat transfer, and the rates at which each material will transfer heat. Heat always "flows" from warmer to cooler areas. You might also include that air doesn't accept heat very well, but metal is very good at heat transfer. You could demonstrate this by using an insulator and a conductor, maybe some wood, and some metal. Place your hand on both, see which one heats up faster. The metal has a noticeably better heat transfer rate. Important to pause here to note to your child here that the heat left your hand and entered the material (not exactly, but the child is six and this will suffice). Don't keep your hand on the materials too long or the wood will eventually reach the same temperature as the metal (although that is another good experiment that will show that neither material will ever get HOTTER than your hand).

  2. The concept of state change. Some materials change states in a smaller range than others -- the "bucket" is smaller. Liquid is the only bucket, for now. Materials can be super-heated and super-cooled. The intelligent child can be informed about absolute zero, so technically there are three buckets (states of matter which have boundaries to another state or hard boundaries where temperature cannot be changed further), but again, that's a good follow-up for later. It might very well be the next question they ask... "what happens when you keep heating/cooling?" Once you get this far, explaining what heat is is the logical next topic and from there will make absolute zero very easy to explain, and why there is nothing colder than that. Absolute zero AZ can inaccurately be simply described as the place where atomic vibration (the "definition" of heat) stops. Plasma is probably a bit more difficult for a child to understand. I am taking some liberties here, generalizing and glossing over some important scientific details, but give me a break; the child is six years old.

In my experience, inquiring minds like this one don't crave hard, exact answers nearly as much as the reasoning and concepts behind them. There's time for the math later, but understanding heat transfer and state change is the real opportunity. Remember kiddo, you aren't "getting colder" by going outside in the winter, you are simply losing heat. Since your head loses heat faster than your body, that's why you gotta wear this hat.

PS - one liter of magma or water in a thin sheet will cool off much faster than if it is a perfect spherical volume. Again, "it depends on a lot of things". The bucket analogy there, to explain surface area, is that there are more holes in the bucket, so there is more exposure to the colder air (that air contains less heat) at the same time, so more heat will transfer at once.


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