Mon, 10 Jun 2013 14:11 CDT
© Courtesy of Oak Ridge National Laboratory
A fragment of the crystal structure of the new ice is shown where the oxygen atoms are blue and the molecular hydrogen atoms pink. Hydrogen atoms that have been pulled off the water molecules are colored gold. These appear to locate in polyhedral voids in the oxygen lattice (one of which is shaded light grey). Previously, these voids were believed to remain even after the water molecule breaks up at enormous pressures.
Washington, D.C. - Using revolutionary new techniques, a team led by Carnegie's Malcolm Guthrie has made a striking discovery about how ice behaves under pressure, changing ideas that date back almost 50 years. Their findings could alter our understanding of how the water molecule responds to conditions found deep within planets and could have implications for energy science. Their work is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
When water freezes into ice, its molecules are bound together in a crystalline lattice held together by hydrogen bonds. Hydrogen bonds are highly versatile and, as a result, crystalline ice reveals a striking diversity of at least 16 different structures.
In all of these forms of ice, the simple H2
O molecule is the universal building block. However, in 1964 it was predicted that, under sufficient pressure, the hydrogen bonds could strengthen to the point where they might actually break the water molecule apart.
The possibility of directly observing a disassociated water molecule in ice has proven a fascinating lure for scientists and has driven extensive research for the last 50 years. In the mid-1990s several teams, including a Carnegie group, observed the transition using spectroscopic techniques. However, these techniques are indirect and could only reveal part of the picture.
A preferred method is to "see" the hydrogen atoms - or protons - directly. This can be done by bouncing neutrons off the ice and then carefully measuring how they are scattered.
However, applying this technique at high enough pressures to see the water molecule dissociate had simply not been possible in the past. Guthrie explained that: "you can only reach these extreme pressures if your samples of ice are really small. But, unfortunately, this makes the hydrogen atoms very hard to see."