How to Make Water Molecules Bounce
Article written by WSU Physicist, Dr. Peter Hoffmann (16 Jul 2010)
In our cells, water is stuck between molecules with only a few nanometers to spare. Such ‘nanoconfined’ water has long been suspected of having unique properties. Now a team of physicists at Wayne State University has measured the mechanical properties of water squeezed down to just a few molecules, and found that water can be switched from being a liquid to a bouncy solid by small changes in external conditions. Using a new Atomic Force Microscope technique developed at Wayne State, the team probed the mechanical properties of confined water layers without disturbing them. Oscillating a tiny probe, immersed in the liquid, with amplitudes the size of a hydrogen atom (0.1 nm), they recorded the response as the probe squeezed the water at extremely low speeds. Once squeezed to a layer four molecules thick or less, the water behaved like honey: more viscous than in bulk, but still liquid. However, at squeeze speeds of 0.8 nm/s and above, water became elastic. This speed is so slow, it would take 12 years to move one foot, yet it is enough to change the behavior of water drastically.
The paper describing the research, “Dynamic Solidication in Nanoconned Water Films” has been accepted for publication in Physical Review Letters. A preprint is available at http://arxiv.org/abs/1006.3320 .