Ice formation is one of the most common and important processes on earth and almost always occurs at the surface of a material. A basic understanding of how the physicochemical properties of a material’s surface affect its ability to form ice has remained elusive. Here, we use molecular dynamics simulations to directly probe heterogeneous ice nucleation at a hexagonal surface of a nanoparticle of varying hydrophilicity. Surprisingly, we find that structurally identical surfaces can both inhibit and promote ice formation and analogous to a chemical catalyst, it is found that an optimal interaction between the surface and the water exists for promoting ice nucleation. We use our microscopic understanding of the mechanism to design a modified surface in silico with enhanced ice nucleating ability.

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