Where in the H is the H in H2O?

By Fenella Saunders|Monday, November 10, 2003
RELATED TAGS: ELEMENTS

Water isn’t H2O after all. On the timescale of molecular reactions, it is really H1.5O, reports Aris Chatzidimitriou-Dreismann, a physicist at the Technical University of Berlin. He got this puzzling result when he and a group of colleagues fired neutrons at water molecules to create a high-speed snapshot of their structure. The particles did not scatter as much as expected, indicating they were hitting an unexpectedly small number of hydrogen atoms. When the researchers studied other hydrogen-based materials, about one-third of the hydrogen atoms were missing there too. “It was and is a shock, but two completely different instruments using different interactions give the same results,” Chatzidimitriou-Dreismann says.

He theorizes that over the brief time it takes molecules to interact—about 100 quintillionths of a second—quantum effects come into play. “The notion of a single pointlike nucleus disappears, and it becomes a wave, like an electron. Then strange things happen,” Chatzidimitriou-Dreismann says. The wavelike electrons and the wavelike proton (a hydrogen nucleus) interact with each other and with other atoms nearby, in essence getting pulled out of their own molecules. This entanglement is significant at very short time frames, so it may have a big impact on understanding how molecular reactions occur. For instance, the number of hydrogen bonds a protein encounters along a DNA helix may determine where the protein binds. Quantum blurriness may therefore be embedded into the basic chemistry of life.

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