Physicists Have Squeezed Water Molecules Into a Brand New Quantum State

April 27, 2016 | Joanne Kennell

Water undergoes quantum tunneling in beryl (right)
Photo credit: Jeff Scovil

It’s a never-before-seen state!

Physicists have discovered a unique and unexpected behavior of water molecules. By placing water molecules under extreme confinement, or squeezing them, researchers have created a brand new state that is unmatched by the usual laws of solids, liquids, and gases.

In a paper published in Physical Review Letters, researchers at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory describe how they forced water molecules down channels made from the mineral beryl, measuring just 5 angstroms across (about 1 ten-billionth of a meter), and managed to get its hydrogen and oxygen atoms (each measuring about 1 angstrom across) to behave in very peculiar ways. Similar confined conditions exist in nature inside soils, minerals, and cell walls

The discovery, made possible with experiments at ORNL’s Spallation Neutron Source and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in the United Kingdom, is closely linked to existing hypotheses in quantum physics, known as quantum tunneling. Although the research team is not quite sure where their finding will lead, it should offer new insight into how water behaves in super-confined spaces across many disciplines.

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"At low temperatures, this tunneling water exhibits quantum motion through the separating potential walls, which is forbidden in the classical world," said lead author Alexander Kolesnikov of ORNL, in a press release.

What this means is, rather than being fixed, the hydrogen atoms began to appear in six symmetric orientations at the same time, with the oxygen atom in the middle. These six different positions match the six walls of the hexagonal beryl channel, and as they tunnel, the hydrogen atoms cycle between all possible positions, thereby raising the temperature.

"It's one of those phenomena that only occur in quantum mechanics and has no parallel in our everyday experience," said Kolesnikov.

What’s more, the molecule's center of mass shifts to the central oxygen atom rather than the outlying hydrogen ones (as would be the case in a typical molecule). This newly symmetrical layout means the molecule loses its electric dipole moment so the negative and positive charges in the atoms are no longer unbalanced. In theory, it should no longer be interested in bonding with other atoms or molecules.

"This discovery represents a new fundamental understanding of the behavior of water and the way water utilizes energy," Anovitz said.

The next step is to figure out why this phenomenon occurs. Nevertheless, it should help scientists better understand the thermodynamics and behavior of water in confined environments like cell membranes, carbon nanotubes, and in geological environments.

Check out this video explaining the discovery.


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