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The Wonder of Water

13 Feb, 2012

In the latest of our shortlisted entries to the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, Scott McKellar explains what makes water work.

Earlier this year I read Rebecca Hill’s article in the Guardian critiquing “Real” Water, a product that carries celebrity endorsements from distinguished water drinkers such as Paul Oakenfold and Scary Spice. Imagine my horror when I learnt that for my whole life I have been drinking water that is “damaged”. Except of course that I haven’t, because it isn’t.

To clarify, Real Water is water to which electrons have been “added”, or “Electron Energized”. What I find interesting is the manufacturer’s use of water – a well-understood and omnipresent substance – as a subject matter for a spot of nonsense science. Nonscience, as it were.

Throughout our history we have been supping glorious dihydrogen oxide and we’ve learnt a few things about this most vital of substances. The wonder of water goes far beyond its use as a liquid to quench our thirst. Unquestionably, without water we would not be here. Appropriately, this is directly linked to – wait for it – its electrons.

The technology behind Real Water is undisclosed, but by adding electrons it does come the implication that ordinary water is in some way electron-deficient. It is not. Water has no overall charge, meaning that the number of electrons is just right for the number of protons. We all know that the chemical formula of water is H2O – each water molecule consists of one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms. An established method for adding electrons to water already exists, known as electrolysis, but this leads to the H2O molecules decomposing into oxygen (O2) and hydrogen (H2) gas.

Now, putting chemical logic on hold for a sentence or two, if we were to hypothetically “add” electrons to water but avoid its decomposition, we would be left with negatively charged hydroxide ions (OH). In actual fact tap water contains these ions in low concentrations, plus an equal number of positively charged hydronium ions (H3O+) to balance everything out. But if it were possible to isolate a nice cold glass of pure hydroxide, ingestion of this electron-rich water would leave you wishing you had taken a swig of good old electron-balanced water instead.

One of the special properties of water molecules is their ability to form multiple ‘hydrogen’ bonds with one another. These are temporary bonds that form mostly between water molecules, rather than the stronger covalent bonds that form exclusively within the molecules themselves. These interactions account for the odd behaviour of water under certain conditions.

For example, when compared to the chemically similar molecules, such as hydrogen sulphide, hydrogen selenide or hydrogen telluride, water should boil at around -90° C, which is approximately 115° C below room temperature. You’d be hard pushed to find a drink anywhere on Earth if this was the case.

Also, water expands while freezing – an effect of hydrogen bonding that we’ve all seen. If you were to leave a plastic bottle full of water in the freezer you would see this effect first hand. If it contracted, like most other liquids, ice would be denser than liquid water and would quickly sink. Oceans would lose the insulating effect of the ice sheets on their surface and would eventually freeze over entirely. But then again, all the water would have boiled off at -90° C, so there would be none to freeze in the first place.

The list of examples of water’s auspicious properties goes on, if nothing else making clear the fact that it is in no way damaged. It does not need any more electrons. The next time faux-science is used for commercial gains, let’s hope it is for something altogether less fundamental to our existence.

This is an edited version of Scott’s original essay. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer and read our ‘How I write about science‘ series of tips for aspiring science writers.

Over the coming months, we’re publishing the shortlisted essays in this year’s inaugural competition.

Image Credit: Wellcome Images

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