Scientists have turned pure water into metal, and there are shots

Pure water is an almost perfect insulator.

Yes, water in nature conducts electricity – but that’s due to impurities in it, which dissolve into free ions that allow electric current to flow. Pure water becomes “mineral” only – electronically conductive – at extremely high pressures, beyond our current laboratory production capabilities.

But, as researchers first demonstrated in 2021, it’s not just high pressures that can induce these minerals in pure water.

By contacting pure water with an electron-sharing alkali metal – in this case an alloy of sodium and potassium – free-moving charged particles can be added, turning the water into a metal.

The resulting conductivity lasts only a few seconds, but is an important step toward being able to understand this phase of water by studying it directly.

“You can see the phase transition to mineral water with the naked eye!” Physicist Robert Seidel of Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin für Materialien und Energie in Germany explained last year when the paper was published.

“The silver sodium-potassium droplet covers itself with a golden glow, which is impressive.”

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Under sufficiently high pressures, virtually any material can theoretically become conductive.

The idea is that if the atoms are pressed together tightly enough, the orbits of the outer electrons will begin to overlap, allowing them to move around. For water, that pressure is about 48 megabars – just under 48 million times Earth’s atmospheric pressure at sea level.

While pressures beyond this have been created in a laboratory setting, such experiments would be unsuitable for studying mineral waters. So a team of researchers led by organic chemist Pavel Jungwirth of the Czech Academy of Sciences in the Czech Republic turned to alkali metals.

These materials release their outer electrons very easily, which means that they can catalyze the electron-sharing properties of pure, high-pressure water without high pressures.

There is only one problem: the alkali metals are very reactive with liquid water, sometimes reaching the point of explosion (there is a really cool video below).

Drop the metal into the water and you’ll get the kaboom.

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The research team found a very cool way to solve this problem. What if water was added to the metal instead of the metal being added to the water?

In a vacuum chamber, the team began by extruding a small lump of a sodium-potassium alloy from a nozzle, which is liquid at room temperature, and then very carefully added a thin layer of pure water using vapor deposition.

Upon contact, electrons and metal cations (positively charged ions) flow into the water from the alloy.

Not only did this give the water a golden sheen, but it also transformed the water – just as we should see in pure, mineral water at high pressure.

This was confirmed using optical reflectance spectroscopy and synchrotron X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy.

The two properties – golden luster and conductive band – occupied two different frequency bands, which allowed to clearly identify both.

In addition to giving us a better understanding of this phase transition here on Earth, the research could also allow for a closer study of the extreme high pressure conditions within large planets.

In the icy planets of the solar system, Neptune and Uranus, for example, liquid metallic hydrogen is believed to rotate. It is the only Jupiter whose pressures are believed to be high enough to turn pure water into metal.

The prospect of being able to replicate conditions inside the giant planets of our solar system is really exciting.

“Our study not only shows that mineral water can indeed be produced on Earth, but also describes the spectral properties associated with its beautiful golden metallic luster,” Seidl said.

The search was published in temper nature.

A version of this article was first published in July 2021.

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