A single ion impacts million water molecules

A single ion impacts a million water molecules

5:53 AM, 12th April 2016
A single ion impacts a million water molecules
EPFL researchers have found that water molecules are 10,000 times more responsive to ions than previously thought.

SWITZERLAND: Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) researchers have found that water molecules are 10,000 times more responsive to ions than previously thought.

Water is simple and complex at the same time. A single water molecule (H2O) is made up of only 3 atoms. Yet the collective behaviour of water molecules is unique and continues to amaze us. Water molecules are linked together by hydrogen bonds that break and form several thousands of billions of times per second. These bonds provide water with unique and unusual properties. Living organisms are for 60 percent composed of salty water. Deciphering the interactions between water and ions is thus fundamentally important for understanding life.

Not 100 but 1,000,000 molecules are influenced

Research led by Sylvie Roke, have probed the influence of ions on the structure of water with unprecedentedly sensitive measurements. According to their multi-scale analyses, a single ion has a small but measurable influence on millions of water molecules that is 10,000 times more than previously thought.

In an article appearing in Science Advances, they explain how a single ion can “twist” the bonds of several million water molecules over a distance exceeding 20 nanometres, causing the liquid to become “stiffer.”

Water molecules line up around the ions

Water molecules are made up of one negatively charged oxygen atom and two positively charged hydrogen atoms. The Mickey Mouse-shaped molecule, therefore, does not have the same charge at its centre as at its extremities. When an ion, which is an electrically charged atom, comes into contact with water, the network of hydrogen bonds is perturbed. The perturbation spreads over millions of surrounding molecules, causing water molecules to align preferentially in a specific direction. This can be thought of as water molecules “stiffening their network” between the various ions.

From atomistic to macroscopic length scales

Water's behaviour was tested with three different approaches: ultrafast optical measurements, which revealed the arrangement of molecules on the nanometric scale; a computer simulation on the atomic scale; and measurement of the water's surface structure and tension, which was done at the macroscopic level.

“For the last method, we simply dipped a thin metal plate into the water and pulled gently using a tensiometer to determine the water's resistance to pulling,” said Roke. “We observed that the presence of a few ions makes it easier to pull the plate out, that is, ions reduce the surface resistance of water.”

Testing different salts and different “waters”

The researchers carried out the same experiment with 21 different salts: they all affected water in the same way. Then they studied the effect of ions on heavy water (D2O), whose hydrogen atoms are heavy isotopes (with an additional neutron in the nucleus). This liquid is almost indistinguishable from normal water. But here the properties are very different.

No link with water memory or homeopathy

Roke and her team are aware that it might be tempting to link these stunning results to all sorts of controversial beliefs about water. They are however careful to distance themselves from any far-fetched interpretation.

The new discovery about the behaviour of water will be useful in fundamental research and in other areas too. The interaction between water and ions is omnipresent in biological processes related to enzymes, ion channels and protein folding. Every new piece of knowledge gives greater insight into how life works.

© EPFL News


Read more on water molecules:

Saving sunshine for a rainy day by splitting water molecules

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