Physicists Squeeze Water Molecules Into an Entirely New State


Image: A. I. Kolesnikov et al.
Image: A. I. Kolesnikov et al.
Physicists from the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory have discovered a new state of water that cannot be explained as a solid, liquid, or gas. It is a peculiar, and like exceedingly common, „other“ state that water molecules are forced to exist in in conditions of extreme confinement. Here, quantum effects begin to take over, leaving behind the rules of classical physics that we’re used to: solids, liquids, and gases just stop making sense.

By Michael Byrne | MOTHERBOARD

The group’s work is published in the current Physical Review Letters.

To start, we need to imagine just a single water molecule: two hydrogen atoms bound to a single oxygen atom. This molecule is placed in a tiny natural channel cleaved through the hexagonal crystals of the mineral beryl. The channel, which is large enough to host just a single water molecule, is only about 5 angstroms across, or roughly one ten-billionth of a meter. According to the physicists, such confinement should be fairly common in the natural world, taking place in certain geological and biological environments such as soils, mineral interfaces, and cell walls.

Atoms themselves are only about 1 angstrom across, so the beryl channels are really more straitjackets than cages. Trapped like this, the water molecules begin to demonstrate tunneling behavior, becoming „delocalized.“ As we should expect in the quantum world, the molecules and their constituent atoms are able to exist in multiple states at once.

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