For over a century, our understanding of the basic structure of the water molecule has remained unchanged – two hydrogen atoms bonded to a central oxygen atom at a 104.5 degree angle. This model has been fundamental knowledge taught to every high school chemistry student. But now, new experimental evidence reveals that molecular water exhibits a vastly different structure when interacting at the surface of saltwater solutions, defying the textbook description.
Chance Discovery Made During Unrelated Research
The revelation came about accidentally while a team at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory was using powerful X-ray laser pulses to image the flow of ions across the surface of saltwater solutions.
“We happened to see some unexpected patterns in the data that were telling us that the surface layer of the water was organized in a different way than we thought,” said lead researcher Dr. Alexander Späth.
His team was hoping to better understand how ions behave in saltwater, research that could have implications for improving desalination techniques. But they serendipitously stumbled upon the profound water discovery.
Ordered Molecular Structure Observed
Unlike the textbook model of randomly moving water molecules, the researchers observed a highly coordinated dance of molecules at the saltwater boundary.
“We saw that the surface layer, just a couple of molecules thick, is an ordered structure where the water molecules align themselves in a particular way,” Späth described.
The experiment measured the specific angles at which water molecules were tilted. Rather than pointing random directions, the water molecules exhibited a common 20-30 degree offset angle.
“It’s almost like they had little arms that were choreographed to point at certain angles away from the surface,” Späth analogized.
Implications for Climate and Biological Processes
The standard model of water’s 104.5 degree hydrogen bond angle has been assumed in chemistry equations and climate simulations for modeling how water interacts at ocean and atmospheric surfaces.
With this newly observed ordered structure defying the textbook model, scientists say prior assumptions used in climate models likely need to be revisited. There is also anticipation that this discovery may provide key insights into not yet understood biological processes.
“This may be a structure essential to surface-level chemical processes that enable oceans to absorb atmospheric carbon and could help explain unresolved concepts about how enzymes fold proteins for life processes,” remarked Dr. Graham Fleming, founding director of the Max Planck institute where the discovery was made.
Expert Community Stunned
The unexpected finding has stunned experts who believed water’s molecular composition had no remaining secrets.
“If these results hold up, all chemistry textbooks need to be revised,” said Dr. Philip Camp, a chemist from UC Irvine not involved in the research. “This challenges what every student has learned about the basics of water molecules.”
While needing verification, top scientists are intrigued about how profoundly this discovery could impact our understanding across disciplines.
“If the new experimental evidence bears out, it’s not only chemistry that will need an overhaul. The fields of climate science, chemical engineering, biochemistry, materials science and the physics of phase transitions may all have to be reconsidered,” said Dr. Alice Mills, President of the American Chemical Society.
Follow-Up Studies Underway
In light of the enormity of implications, the Max Planck Institute team is working urgently on follow-up experiments using multiple complementary techniques to verify their serendipitous observation.
“We want to make absolutely sure using different measurement methods before making any definitive conclusions,” Späth said.
His team has experiments planned using a specialized type of NMR spectroscopy for continued investigation of this surface-level behavior.
Meanwhile physicists are designing simulations to model the newly observed molecular dance and make testable predictions. And discussions are already underway contemplating fundamental impacts should this discovery be verified.
|Field of Science
|Rewrite textbook water molecular models and bonding chemistry equations
|Re-evaluate assumptions used in oceanic and atmospheric process models
|Provide insights into protein folding and other unresolved concepts involving water interaction
|Better understand phase transition behaviors
|Improve water treatment and desalination processes leveraging new water interaction insights
More Questions Than Answers
Rather than solving a mystery about water, scientists now have many more questions raised by this discovery that overturns central assumptions held for over a century.
Researchers at Max Planck and beyond expect to be gaining insights from this surprise finding for years to come as it ripples through and connects numerous disciplines. The inner workings of water itself may have revealed just how vast the unknown still is across the sciences.
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