Breakthrough! Scientists Finally Discover How Water Conducts Electricity

First Posted: Dec 05, 2016 03:25 AM EST

In a watershed moment, scientists from Yale University and University of Washington have finally witnessed water molecules conducting electricity first hand, more than 200 years after the phenomenon was first investigated. Water is a good conductor of electricity; however, until now no one had been able to explain how it actually takes place on the atomic level.

"This fundamental process in chemistry and biology has eluded a firm explanation," researcher Anne McCoy said, as reported by UW Today. "And now we have the missing piece that gives us the bigger picture: how protons essentially 'move' through water."

For the past two centuries scientists have speculated about the Grotthuss mechanism, the process of protons moving through water when electricity passes through it. However, the details remained unclear. Now, as per Science, the research team of scientists found an experimental way to see the structural changes in the web of interconnected water molecules when an additional proton is moved from one oxygen atom to another.

"The oxygen atoms do not need to move much at all," lead researchers Mark Johnson said. "It is kind of like Newton's cradle, the child's toy with a line of steel balls, each one suspended by a string. If you lift one ball so that it strikes the line, only the end ball moves away, leaving the others unperturbed."

The solution came when Johnson worked with only a few molecules of heavy water, i.e., water created with hydrogen's deuterium isotope, and cooled them to absolute zero. The process made the images of the proton in motion much sharper. As a result, the scientists were able to unveil a sequence of concerted deformations.

According to Johnson, the new discovery will be helpful in comprehending chemical processes that take place at the surface of water. Currently, there is an ongoing debate in the scientific community whether the surface of water is more or less acidic compared to its bulk. However, at the moment, there is no way to measure the pH of water's surface.

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