Posted in | Biomaterials

Superionic Water Found in Simultaneous Solid & Liquid State

Scientists have discovered a form of water that exists in both a liquid and solid state at the same time. The superionic water has long been theorized but this represents the first time it has been observed as a reality in these states. This could hail a new way to manipulate and create materials specific for desired needs on a scale never imagined before.

The 30–year–old prediction stated that superionic conduction could be found in water ice – this has now been proven by scientists in laboratory conditions and was published in the journal Nature Physics.

The result means that electricity can be transmitted, like in metal, but the current is carried by positively charged ions instead of negatively charged electrons. This was seen visually since moving electrons appear reflective, like a shiny metal, but in this case, they were opaque – making this superionic ice.

It is believed this superionic ice exists in ice giants like Uranus and Neptune and could go some way to explaining these planets’ lopsided magnetic fields.

The superionic ice is made up of a rigid lattice of oxygen atoms, which positively charged hydrogen nuclei move through. This is achieved through pressure. While water is made up of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom in a V-shape, those Vs align into an airy structure in the case of ice on Earth – hence water’s unique expansion upon freezing. But under pressure, these atoms are squeezed into other crystal structures with over a dozen forms of ice already discovered on Earth.

Superionic ice is thought to naturally occur in situations where the pressure is so high and the temperature so hot that the chemical bonds between oxygen and hydrogen are melted. The result is that the heavier and larger oxygen atoms stack up in a fixed and solid crystal alignment while the hydrogen nuclei flow through as a liquid. This is how that positively charged electrical ion transmission is possible.

The lab experiment took water squeezed into a state known as ice VII, making it 60 times denser than water. This was done by applying 360,000 pounds of pressure per square inch on one-seven-millionth of an ounce of water between two diamond plates. That makes it 25,000 times greater than the air pressure on your skin right now.

This compressed ice was taken from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and rolled on over to the University of Rochester where lasers were waiting. These pulses blasted the ice to cause shock waves that lasted 10 to 20 billionths of a second and heated to thousands of degrees bringing the pressure up to more than a million times that of Earth’s atmosphere. This is when that opaque state was observed indicating superionic ice, which stayed a solid until reaching 8,500 degrees Fahrenheit.

So why does all this, which is thought to occur naturally on Neptune and Uranus, potentially cause their lopsided magnetic fields? While Earth's magnetic field is produced at the core of the planet, the fields of the icy giants could partly originate inside the mantles within shells of superionic ice.

And what does all this mean for our future? Materials can be generated like never before.

As one starts validating those kinds of predictions, it gives a hope that one could start thinking about engineering new materials, where you tell me what properties you want, and someone can use a computer now to figure out what kind of material, what kind of elements you have to put together, and how they’d have to be packed together to come up with those properties.

Dr. Jeanloz, Co-Author

Dr. Car, another scientist who has previously theorized superionic ice using computer simulations, suggests there may be several types of superionic ice. By rearranging oxygen structures at higher pressures there could be even more options.

Marius Millot, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, and lead author of the paper that made this discovery in the lab describes it as “a really strange state of matter”.

Image credit: ValentinT/shutterstock

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