Supercooling and Nucleation of Fatty Acids: Influence of Thermal History on the Behavior of the Liquid Phase

Saturated fatty acids are an exceptionally important class of liquids, used in many consumer products and suggested as phase change materials (PCMs) for thermal energy storage, in part because they crystallize with minimal supercooling. Here we investigate fatty acid nucleation to understand why crystallization is so facile, as a step toward identifying potential mechanisms for the suppression of supercooling in other PCMs. We find that fatty acid supercooling can be induced only if the liquid is first heated above a material-dependent threshold temperature. NMR spin–lattice relaxation time studies show that the average mobility of the alkyl chains in the fatty acids increases more rapidly with temperature above the supercooling threshold temperature, and NMR T1 hysteresis also sets in at that temperature. Measurements of the real portion of the dielectric constant as a function of temperature show that a liquid fatty acid heated far above its melting point behaves with an apparent temperature upon cooling that is higher than the actual temperature, when compared to its behavior at the same temperature upon heating. Our results suggest that molecular clusters in the liquid fatty acids break apart when the liquids are heated above their threshold temperature and do not immediately re-form on cooling. The breakup of clusters leads to an increase in the mobility of the fatty acid molecules. Because the clusters do not re-form quickly on subsequent cooling, nucleation does not occur, and substantial supercooling results.