New State of Water Molecules Discovered: It Is Not Always Solid, Liquid, Gas

First Posted: Apr 27, 2016 06:59 AM EDT

It is a known fact that water molecules have three states, solid, liquid and gas. However, scientists have recently discovered a fourth state of matter, according to a study published in Physical Review Letters. Physicists are referring to the new state as quantum spin liquid.

Researchers at the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) discovered the fourth state exists for water molecules when they are confined. During extreme confinement, the quantum effect supersedes the usual rules of physics.

The fourth state of matter in certain magnetic materials was predicted by scientists over four decades ago, however until now the evidence for the same had not been found in nature. Finally, the fourth state of matter was discovered in a two-dimensional material similar to graphene.

The physicist forced the water molecules into the fourth state of matter by squeezing them into tiny channels in the mineral beryl. According to the researchers, such confinements, which are usually 5 angstroms across, are fairly common in nature and occur in environments such as cell walls, mineral interfaces, and dirt.

As per the study, after the water molecules are confined in the 5 angstroms wide channels they become delocalized and start to mimic tunneling behavior. After an entry into the quantum world, the atoms in the water molecule are able to exist in multiple states at once and consequently they develop six types of symmetric orientations around the oxygen atom, forming a ring shape. Basically, it is the hydrogen atoms that develop into rings that surround the central oxygen atom, instead of standing out like an antenna. The hydrogen atoms lead to increasing temperatures as they tunnel between their various possible configurations.

The phenomenon was observed by the physicists at ORNL by using neutron scattering. The process involves the probing of subatomic structures by neutrons, which is an essential imaging technique for analyzing material properties at atomic scales.

According to the physicists, a very interesting fact about quantum spin liquid is that the atoms lose their electrical dipole movement once they are in the new configurations.  The molecules get more negatively charged at the oxygen corner, and more positively charged in the hydrogen side. If the dipole movement is lost then water is no longer the universal solvent because the molecule no longer bonds with other molecules/atoms. 

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