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'This Doesn't Have a Name': A Molecule of Water Can Exist in Six Places at Once, Researchers Find

Scientists at the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory have observed water in a quantum form, which is neither liquid, solid, or gas.
Investigadores del Oak Ridge National Laboratory descubren que el agua exhibe unas características únicas e inesperadas en el mineral berilo. (Imagen por Jeff Scovil/ORNL)

Water can only be a solid, liquid, or gas, right?


It turns out water has a fourth form, according to scientists at the US Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory who published their findings recently in the journal Physical Review Letters.

The new form of water was discovered through the mind-blowing revelations of quantum mechanics. We're talking about water at its most fundamental level, in other words: two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom dancing in a very tiny space.


"It isn't something that your physicist much less your average guy can go out and stand on his front porch and see," said Oak Ridge geologist Larry Anovitz.

While this new water form might not be tangible like snow or fog, its discovery has a lot of potential applications, especially in biology, said Johnjoe McFadden, a professor of molecular genetics at the University of Surrey in Britain.

"One of the things we know about life is that water is absolutely fundamental to it," McFadden said. "Everything involved in life at the molecular level involves water. It's really pushing quantum mechanics really deeply into the heart of life and revealing that it's fundamental to life."

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Quantum mechanics is a branch of physics that investigates how matter behaves when it's infinitesimally small. Whereas the physics that many people studied in high school explains why, say, gravity causes apples to fall down to the ground rather than up into the sky, quantum mechanics describes the world of atoms and even smaller subatomic particles.

In that world, the rules of normal physics don't apply. Instead, the teeny weeny particles that comprise everything solid behave like waves — like sound waves, for instance. Incredibly, that means those particles can potentially exist in many places at the same time.


Using the principles of quantum mechanics, neutron beams, and powerful computers, the Oak Ridge researchers discovered that a single water molecule can exist simultaneously in six places at once.

To boil it down (pun intended), they discovered a new quantum state of water.

"Water is only by definition the liquid. If it's solid it's ice. If it's vapor it's steam," Anovitz said. "This doesn't have a name."

The scientists made their discovery under very specific conditions. They looked at water trapped in the crevices of emerald and aquamarine crystals at very low temperatures.

But they suspected they or other researches might replicate their experiment using other substances. "It probably exists in many other cases in nature, in minerals, in living species, and so on," Oak Ridge physicist Alexander Kolesnikov said.

The water molecule existed in six different places at the same time because the crystals are hexagonal, or six-sided, the scientists said. It conformed to the vessel where it was located, in other words. But the molecule also appeared on the other side of sections within the crystals, so it was able to traverse boundaries that water couldn't cross under the normal rules of physics.

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Scientists might be able to use the findings to learn more about how water passes through cell membranes, said the scientists.

"Water interacts with enzymes in thousands of different ways," McFadden said. "Enzymes are the targets of every drug out there. Understanding how enzymes work better than we currently do could make a huge difference to how we get drugs to do the wonderful things we need them to do. That could lead to new medicines."

MIT Mechanical Engineering Professor Seth Lloyd, an expert in quantum physics, was reluctant to immediately forecast new drugs emerging from the Oak Ridge experiments. He preferred to contemplate the newly discovered "funky" qualities of water rather than their practical applications.

"It's cool enough on its own," he said.

Follow John Dyer on Twitter: @johnjdyerjr