We all know that water is pretty amazing. It sustains life, and it’s one of few substances on Earth that can exist in solid, liquid, or gaseous form. Scientists just discovered a new state of water molecules that displays some pretty unexpected characteristics. This discovery, made by researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, reveals that water molecules “tunnel” in ultra-small hexagonal channels of the mineral beryl. Basically, this means the molecules spread out when they are trapped in confined spaces, taking a new shape entirely.
Researchers at ORNL who participated in the discovery were amazed to see water molecules behaving in this way, because the occurrence was previously thought to only exist in quantum mechanics. “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’s Chemical and Engineering Materials Division. “This means that the oxygen and hydrogen atoms of the water molecule are ‘delocalized’ and therefore simultaneously present in all six symmetrically equivalent positions in the channel at the same time. It’s one of those phenomena that only occur in quantum mechanics and has no parallel in our everyday experience.”
The new state was discovered while researchers were examining how water behaves when trapped under rocks and soil, in an attempt to learn information that can help scientists in all sorts of different disciplines. The discovery of this “quantum tunneling” state of water molecules in beryl is expected to help scientists understand the thermodynamic properties of water in confined environments, such as in carbon nanotubes, as well as in various geological conditions.
Although water is often taken for granted, this discovery proves we shouldn’t be so quick to think we know everything about how things work here on planet Earth.
Images via A. I. Kolesnikov et al.