Science: Unnatural Water

  • Share
  • Read Later

Western scientists were frankly skeptical. Russian Chemists N. Fedyakin and Boris Deryagin claimed to have produced a mysterious new substance, a form of water that was so stable it boiled only at about 1,000°F., or five times the boiling temperature of natural water. It did not evaporate. It did not freeze—though at —40°F., with little or no expansion, it hardened into a glassy substance quite unlike ice.

Despite its remarkable qualities, the polymerized water, or polywater as it was called, was basically the familiar old H<sub>2</sub>O. Or was it? The question was so intriguing, recalls University of Maryland Chemist Ellis Lippincott, that "we couldn't afford not to look at it."

Beginning early this year, Lippincott and co-workers from the university and the National Bureau of Standards analyzed samples of polywater with the aid of laser beams and one of the world's two double-beam microscope spectrometers. They found that the chemical bonds between polywaters hydrogen and oxygen atoms were always of equal length, which made them stronger than the bonds between atoms of a natural-water molecule. They also confirmed that polywater is a totally new substance with all the properties the Russians had claimed.

Threatening Thimble. So far, the total quantity made in Russia, the U.S. and Britain would fill little more than a thimble. But researchers are busily making more, and the process is surprisingly simple. A vacuum is created in a bowl that contains tiny glass capillary tubes; water vapor is introduced into the vacuum, and in two or three days polywater collects in the capillaries. Scientists conjecture that polywater's strange properties might eventually make it useful as a superlubricant, a substitute for antifreeze, or fuel for an extraordinarily efficient steam engine.

Physicist Frank Donahoe of Pennsylvania's Wilkes College, for one, thinks that polywater could pose a threat to all life. Once it is let loose, the stuff might propagate itself, feeding on natural water. The proliferation of such a dense, inert liquid, warns Donahoe, could stop all life processes, turning the earth into a "reasonable facsimile of Venus." Lippincott considers that danger slight. But he concedes that until scientists know more about polywater, they should handle it with care.