Water – secrets of the strangest liquid of the world

25 February, 2020

Nearly 200 researchers meet at DESY WATER WEEK to draft a framework for the planned Centre for Molecular Water Science.

The molecular characteristics of water (shown here are symbolised water molecules) are in the focus of the DESY WATER WEEK. (Credit: DESY, Felix Lehmkühler)

Water is ubiquitous – and at the same time one of the most amazing chemical compounds: It expands when cooled, is virtually incompressible, has an unusually high heat storage capacity, and under certain circumstances it freezes when heated. Water is the element of life; many of its surprising properties are essential for life as we know it. The comparatively simple molecule continues to surprise science despite centuries of research. Many of its peculiarities are still far from being understood. This week, almost 200 researchers from 15 countries are meeting at the DESY WATER WEEK to work up a White Paper for the planned Centre for Molecular Water Science (CMWS), which is to concentrate research efforts in the field of molecular processes in water and at water interfaces in the future.

“Water is a fairly simple molecule, but it is very special in its own particular way,” explains chemist Melanie Schnell, Lead Scientist at DESY. Together with her colleague and Lead Scientist Gerhard Grübel, she coordinates the CMWS project. “Special bonds between water molecules, or example, are the reason why it only boils at 100 degrees Celsius.” If it weren't for these hydrogen bonds, water would be a gas at room temperature already. Experts have long been fascinated by such idiosyncrasies.

The CMWS wants to shed light on water and its properties from many different angles: Special experimental setups are designed to put water quite literally under pressure and thereby create exotic ice crystals which should otherwise only exist inside giant planets. The question of how water molecules affect the folding of proteins is of special interest in biology: Does a protein molecule adopt a different shape when there is water around? And chemists want to find out, among other things, how catalytic reactions are influenced by the water molecule – this is important for electrolysis, for example, a key part of climate-friendly hydrogen production.

“Over recent years, we have noticed that a wide range of research groups in DESY's surroundings were in the subject of water,” says Schnell. “At some point, we came up with the idea of bringing this shared interests together in a joint centre.” The researchers involved all have one thing in common: They use the Hamburg X-ray light sources PETRA III, FLASH and European XFEL to study the details of how water, the object of their interest, behaves.

“Virtually every institution on the DESY campus is involved in the CMWS in one way or another,” reports Grübel. “And we have received so much encouragement from even further afield that it could almost be described as a European centre.” More than 30 groups from different institutes around Europe and beyond have expressed a concrete interest. Collaborations have already been established in the context of an “Early Science Program”, and soon a first laboratory will be set up at DESY where samples can be prepared; later, the centre will be situated in a new building on the campus.

For the general public, renowned climate researcher Mojib Latif from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel will give a free evening lecture on “Die Rolle der Ozeane im Klimawandel” (The role of the oceans in climate change; German language!) on Tuesday (February 25 at 7:30 pm in the DESY auditorium) as part of the WATER WEEK.

(from DESY News)


Further Information:
DESY Water Week: https://indico.desy.de/indico/e/waterweek2020