For the first time, scientists from Switzerland have separated the two less-known forms of water and proved that molecules of H2O undergo different chemical activities.
People are familiar with the chemical composition of water: a lone oxygen atom bound to two hydrogen atoms. What is less familiar to people is that the water they drink actually comes in two forms: the ortho-water and para-water.
Now, a team of scientists from the University of Basel in Switzerland is able to accurately differentiate the two by observing them at a molecular level. They found that ortho-water and para-water differ depending on the direction by which their hydrogen atoms are stimulated by what is scientifically called as "nuclear spins."
The movement of nuclear spins changed when water molecules are cooled to freezing point. The freezing point with which hydrogen atoms reacted differently is similar to the temperature found in outer space.
Therefore, the current study could provide new insights on how building blocks of life interact with one another in the interstellar portion of the universe.
Ortho-Water And Para-Water
There had been many attempts in the past to pinpoint the exact difference between ortho-water and para-water. The separation of ortho-water and para-water was made difficult by their almost indistinguishable physical properties.
The team, led by Stefan Willitsch from the University of Basel's Department of Chemistry, succeeded in their attempt by looking into the water's ability to endure certain chemical reaction. To overcome the hurdle, Willitsch and his team employed the method developed by Jochen Küpper from the Hamburg Center for Free-Electron Laser Science.
The team cooled the water molecules at a freezing point close to absolute zero. Their findings, published in the scientific journal Nature Communications, stated that while both ortho-water and para-water have a similar chemical composition, the nuclear spins of their hydrogen atoms differ greatly.
Specifically, the nuclear spins of the ortho-water move in a parallel direction, while nuclear spins of para-water moved in opposite direction.
The team also observed that para-water chemically behaved about 25 percent faster than ortho-water. This makes para-water more capable of undergoing more rapid chemical reactivity.
The Taste Of Ortho-Water And Para-Water
The accurate differentiation between the two forms of water will not create a significant impact in the field of chemistry, according to Willitsch. Neither will people get the chance to try whether ortho-water tastes differently from para-water.
Willitsch explained that molecules of both ortho-water and para-water, once stored at room temperature, will always be bound to mix together. This suggests that separation will only be possible under laboratory environment.
Nonetheless, he believed that their discovery provides an interesting insight into the water that people drink.
"It's one of the most fundamental molecules on this planet — in the entire universe, so this is quite an important piece in the whole puzzle," Willitsch said.