Weird water: Discovery challenges long-held beliefs about water's special properties

January 18, 2008

Beyond its role as the elixir of all life, water is a very unusual substance: Scientists have long marveled over counter-intuitive properties that set water apart from other solids and liquids commonly found in nature.

The simple fact that water expands when it freezes -- an effect known to anyone whose plumbing has burst in winter -- is just the beginning of a long list of special characteristics. (Most liquids contract when they freeze.)

That is why chemical engineer Pablo Debenedetti and collaborators at three other institutions were surprised to find a highly simplified model molecule that behaves in much the same way as water, a discovery that upends long-held beliefs about what makes water so special.

“The conventional wisdom is that water is unique,” said Debenedetti, the Class of 1950 Professor in Engineering and Applied Science. “And here we have a very simple model that displays behaviors that are very hard to get in anything but water. It forces you to rethink what is unique about water.”

While their water imitator is hypothetical -- it was created with computer software that is commonly used for simulating interactions between molecules -- the researchers’ discovery may ultimately have implications for industrial or pharmaceutical research. “I would be very interested to see if experimentalists could create colloids (small particles suspended in liquid) that exhibit the water-like properties we observed in our simulations,” Debenedetti said. Such laboratory creations might be useful in controlling the self-assembly of complex biomolecules or detergents and other surfactants. .

More fundamentally, the research raises questions about why oil and water don’t mix, because the simulated molecule repels oil as water does, but without the delicate interactions between hydrogen and oxygen that are thought to give water much of its special behavior.

The researchers published their findings Dec. 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team also included lead author Sergey V. Buldyrev of Yeshiva University, Pradeep Kumar and H. Eugene Stanley of Boston University, and Peter J. Rossky of the University of Texas. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation through a grant shared by Debenedetti, Rossky and Stanley.

The discovery builds on an earlier advance by the same researchers. It had previously been shown that simple molecules can show some water-like features. In 2006, the collaborators published a paper showing that they could induce water-like peculiarities by adjusting the distance at which pairs of particles start to repel each other. Like water, their simulated substance expanded when cooled and became more slippery when pressurized. That finding led them to investigate more closely. They decided to look at how their simulated molecule acts as a solvent -- that is, how it behaves when other materials are dissolved into it -- because water’s behavior as a solvent is also unique.

In their current paper, they simulated the introduction of oily materials into their imitator and showed that it had the same oil-water repulsion as real water across a range of temperatures. They also simulated dissolving oily polymers into their substance and, again, found water-like behavior. In particular, the polymers swelled not only when the “water” was heated, but also when it was super-cooled, which is one defining characteristic of real water. Proteins with oily interiors also behave in this way.

In real water, these special behaviors are thought to arise from water’s structure -- two hydrogen atoms attached to an oxygen atom. The arrangement of electrical charges causes water molecules to twist and stick to each other in complex ways.

To create their simulation, the researchers ignored these complexities. They specified just two properties: the distance at which two converging particles start to repel each other and the distance at which they actually collide like billiard balls. Their particles could be made of anything -- plastic beads, for example -- and so long as the ratio between these two distances was correct (7:4), then they would display many of the same characteristics as water.

“This model is so simple it is almost a caricature,” Debenedetti said. “And yet it has these very special properties. To show that you can have oil-water repulsion without hydrogen bonds is quite interesting.”

Debenedetti noted that their particles differ from water in key aspects. When it freezes, for example, the crystals do not look anything like ice. For that reason, the research should not be viewed as leading toward a “water substitute.”

As a next step, Debenedetti said he would like to see if experimentalists could create particles that have the same simple specifications as their model and see if their behavior matches the computer simulation.

Source: Princeton University

Related Stories

Recommended for you

The Swiss army knife of smoke screens

March 18, 2018

Setting off smoke bombs is more than good fun on the Fourth of July. The military uses smoke grenades in dangerous situations to provide cover for people and tanks on the move. But the smoke arms race is on. Increasingly, ...

World's biggest battery in Australia to trump Musk's

March 16, 2018

British billionaire businessman Sanjeev Gupta will built the world's biggest battery in South Australia, officials said Friday, overtaking US star entrepreneur Elon Musk's project in the same state last year.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1.7 / 5 (6) Jan 18, 2008
Whatever happened to real science?

Is this all chemistry and physics are these days?

It seems these days anyone can write a computer program and plug in relatively arbitrary numbers and call it a "discovery".

They don't even actually have a chemical compound yet, all they did was create an imaginary particle and adjust its FAKE statistics in the computer simulation until it produced water-like properties.

Well, news flash everyone, their computer simulation doesn't factor in real world physics and real atomic physics and chemistry. This is just one big waste of money to get a few people 15 minutes of fame.
5 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2008
I would hope this would just be the first step in actually proving their ideas, and not a definitive answer as to whether they're right or not. Of course, you really have to understand the model they've made to determine if it models real world physics and chemistry.

The idea is that if they can make a fictional compound that imitates water then maybe they can find or create a compound with the same properties.
5 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2008
Right?! How is this not real science?! It's noted multiple times in the article that they plan on taking their research directly to the lab to investigate and verify their simulations and models.

I find the mere suggestion that there are other factors at work besides the arrangement of H and O in the molecule exceptionally interesting and definitely warranting more investigation. Why would they not follow suit?!

The new approach of a ratio between the repelling and collisions of the atoms may not only hold fascinating secrets about the structure of water and similar molecules, but breakthroughs in chemistry across the board.
1 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2008
If you are interested in practical materials science, navigate to
we have discovered new materials made of carbon nanotubes that sticks to wet rubber, soft rubber and to human flesh even wet human flesh. There's nothing else like it. A big Japanese conglomerate has expressed interest in a partnership with us.

Contact Neil Farbstein
Vulvox Nanobiotechnology Corporation
1 / 5 (2) Jan 18, 2008
At this point in time they have not made a discovery.
If and when they are able to produce the molecule in quantity and it does live up to it's anticipated behaviours, then you have a discovery.
Presently it is nothing more than a dream.
2 / 5 (3) Jan 18, 2008
They have discovered that properties of water which were thought to arise from the specific structure of water can arise in simulation without programing in that specific structure. It is a discovery and I do not see why people do not consider it science. Computer simulations are just a more advanced and powerful form of "thought experiment" and dismissing them because they are not "real" is odd. Just because computer simulations are misused by climate activists does not mean that all simulations are worthless fiction.
3 / 5 (1) Jan 19, 2008
I guess the concern here is the way a simulation invites simplification. Have they stripped out forces that are ever-present in real matterials that would mean that no actual material could present the properties claimed? It cetainly happens with climate simulations so the analogy may not wide of the mark.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.