Greek researcher sheds light in the odd properties of water and ice
We normally consider liquid water as disordered with the molecules rearranging on a short time scale around some average structure. Now, however, scientists at Stockholm University led by a Greek researcher have discovered two phases of the liquid with large differences in structure and density.
The results are based on experimental studies using X-rays, which are now published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Most of us know that water is essential for our existence on planet Earth. It is less well-known that water has many strange or anomalous properties and behaves very differently from all other liquids. Some examples are the melting point, the density, the heat capacity, and all-in-all there are more than 70 properties of water that differ from most liquids. These anomalous properties of water are a prerequisite for life as we know it.
“The new remarkable property is that we find that water can exist as two different liquids at low temperatures where ice crystallization is slow,” says Anders Nilsson, professor in Chemical Physics at Stockholm University. The breakthrough in the understanding of water has been possible through a combination of studies using X-rays at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, where the two different structures were evidenced and at the large X-ray laboratory DESY in Hamburg where the dynamics could be investigated and demonstrated that the two phases indeed both were liquid phases. Water can thus exist as two different liquids.
“It is very exciting to be able to use X-rays to determine the relative positions between the molecules at different times,” says Fivos Perakis, postdoc at Stockholm University with a background in ultrafast optical spectroscopy. “We have in particular been able to follow the transformation of the sample at low temperatures between the two phases and demonstrated that there is diffusion as is typical for liquids.”
When we think of ice it is most often as an ordered, crystalline phase that you get out of the ice box, but the most common form of ice in our planetary system is amorphous, that is disordered, and there are two forms of amorphous ice with low and high density. The two forms can interconvert and there have been speculations that they can be related to low- and high-density forms of liquid water. To experimentally investigate this hypothesis has been a great challenge that the Stockholm group has now overcome.
These new results not only create an overall understanding of water at different temperatures and pressures, but also how water is affected by salts and biomolecules important for life. In addition, the increased understanding of water can lead to new insights on how to purify and desalinate water in the future. This will be one of the main challenges to humanity in view of the global climate change.