The properties of water is something that we are all familiar with (hopefully). It is an important part of everyone’s life, as humans are made up of 60% of the stuff. Even though it is one of the most “normal” substances that we know, on a molecule level it is actually quite strange. It floats and expands when it is in a solid state. It boils at 100 degrees Celsius, when it shouldn’t be able to boil at that temperature. Water’s surface tension is larger than expected. However, new research that has just been conducted has added another peculiar property to this list of oddities. The result of this new research may have a huge impact on water processes from manufacturing drugs all the way to the purification of water.
This new research was conducted by a team of engineers at USC Viterbi School of Engineering, and they found that when water touches an electrode surface, all of its molecules don’t respond in the same way. This revelation could drastically change how water in an electrical field can dissolve different kinds of substances, which will in turn change the way that a chemical reaction can occur. Just a refresher, chemical reactions are how EVERYTHING is made!
A chemist and electrical engineer combined to create this groundbreaking work, as an interdisciplinary project. This is interesting (and appropriate) because chemistry is the study of electrons, and as stated chemical reactions are what makes all of the materials that our modern world is built with. Not to be outdone, the electrical engineer provided his own groundbreaking work to facilitate this project, coming up with a unique electron which was an essential component, and a complex laser spectroscopy technique that made the breakthrough happen.
How Did The Breakthrough Happen?
The electrical engineer created a bespoke electrode that was made from monolayer graphene (only 0.355nm thick!), which is not a simple process to say the least! To complement the work carried out by the electrical engineer even further, this very electrode has been attempted to be created many times previously across the world without success! The design was changed many times but eventually they got the design just right.
With the new electrode design, it was placed on a water cell and a current ran through it. The special laser spectroscopy technique then allowed them to analyse and observe the behaviour of water in the specific situation. No one previously had been able to understand how these molecules interacted with the field.
What Actually Happened?
The team found that the very top layer of molecules that were the closest to the electrode behaved in a totally different way than the rest. They aligned in a different way, which was previously unheard of and frankly unexpected by the team. This new discovery will give scientists and engineers alike access to more accurate simulations of how water-based chemical reactions behave in different situations.
A Change In Behaviour At The Water Surface
The surface of water and the reactions that occur on it have been a mystery to scientists for quite a while. It has been observed that some reactions can take place at will when the molecule is just partly covered in water, but not when it is fully submerged. Scientists from the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering research found that chemical reactions can take place up to 10,000 times faster at the surface of the water, than fully within the water. Crazy!
One of the first fields that came to mind initially when this discovery was made was the water purification industry. The idea of de-salinizing water with graphene is very attractive to scientists, and can lead to getting clean, purified water to people in a more cost effective, cleaner, and quicker way.
What Does This Mean For The Future?
The good news is that the team at USC Viterbi School of Engineering are not planning to stop their research there. Now that this behaviour of water has been identified and analyzed, more digging into this new found feature of water can be conducted. Their research is typically focused on how water reacts when a current is applied, now they plan to narrow it down to how water responds on a molecular level.
How do you think this discovery is going to change how water is used? What do you think will be the biggest impact of this research? We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!