Research

Dual Structure of Water

Artist's illustration of a high-density configuration of supercooled water, with oxygen molecules in red and hydrogen in silver.

Water is so ubiquitous in our lives that we rarely recognize just how strange it is. For example, when pure liquid water is supercooled well below its freezing temperature, it takes on not one but two molecular arrangements, one of which is high-density and one of which is low-density. Theory had posited this configuration for some time, but only recently has experimental evidence supported it.

The experimental challenge was water’s rapid crystallization in the temperature region of interest. Any time water was held at those temperatures in order to study it, it would crystallize before researchers could make their observations. To get around this, a team studied extremely thin layers of water which they heated with a laser before rapidly cooling. By repeating this heating-and-cooling cycle many times, they were able to measure water properties that only make sense if it conforms to the two-density theory. (Image credit: T. Holland/Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; research credit: L. Kringle et al.; via Science News; submitted by Kam-Yung Soh)

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