Metallic Water Detected at BESSY II

As the droplet grows, water vapor flows into the sample chamber and forms a thin skin on the drop's surface.

Under normal conditions, pure water is an almost perfect insulator. Water only develops metallic properties under extreme pressure, such as exists deep inside of large planets. (Image: HZB)

Under normal conditions, pure water is an almost perfect insulator. Water only develops metallic properties under extreme pressure, such as exists deep inside of large planets. Now, an international collaboration has used a completely different approach to produce metallic water and documented the phase transition at BESSY II. The study has been published in Nature.

After about 5 seconds, a thin film of metallic water has formed around the NaK drop, recognisable by the golden shimmer.
After about 5 seconds, a thin film of metallic water has formed around the NaK drop, recognizable by the golden shimmer. (Image: via HZB)

Every child knows that water conducts electricity — but this refers to “normal” everyday water that contains salts. Pure, distilled water, on the other hand, is an almost perfect insulator. It consists of H2O molecules that are loosely linked to one another via hydrogen bonds. The valence electrons remain bound and are not mobile. To create a conduction band with freely moving electrons, water would have to be pressurized to such an extent that the orbitals of the outer electrons overlap. However, a calculation shows that this pressure is only present in the core of large planets such as Jupiter.

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Providing electrons

An international collaboration of 15 scientists from eleven research institutions has now used a completely different approach to produce an aqueous solution with metallic properties for the first time and documented this phase transition at BESSY II. To do this, they experimented with alkali metals, which release their outer electron very easily.

The picture on the top left shows a NaK drop in a vacuum without water vapor. The other pictures show the development of this drop over time when water vapor is present. Thus, a gold-colored layer of metallic water forms first, followed by white spots of alkali hydroxide. After about 10 seconds, the drop falls. (Image: via HZB)

Avoiding explosion

However, the chemistry between alkali metals and water is known to be explosive. Sodium or other alkali metals immediately start to burn in water. But the team found a way to keep this violent chemistry in check: They did not throw a piece of alkali metal into water, but they did it the other way round: they put a tiny bit of water on a drop of alkali metal, a sodium-potassium (Na-K) alloy, which is liquid at room temperature.

Experiment at BESSY II

At BESSY II, they set up the experiment in the SOL³PES high vacuum sample chamber at the U49/2 beamline. The sample chamber contains a fine nozzle from which the liquid Na-K alloy drips. The silver droplet grows for about 10 seconds until it detaches from the nozzle. As the droplet grows, some water vapor flows into the sample chamber and forms an extremely thin skin on the surface of the droplet. This almost immediately causes the electrons as well as the metal cations to dissolve from the alkali alloy into the water. The released electrons in the water behave like free electrons in a conduction band.

Golden water skin

Dr. Robert Seidel, who supervised the experiments at BESSY II, said: The thin layer of gold-colored metallic water remains visible for a few seconds. This enabled the team led by Prof. Pavel Jungwirth, Czech Academy of Sciences, Prague, to prove with spectroscopic analyses at BESSY II and at the IOCB in Prague that it is indeed water in a metallic state. Dr. Seidel added:

“You can see the phase transition to metallic water with the naked eye! The silvery sodium-potassium droplet covers itself with a golden glow, which is very impressive.”

In the sample chamber, the NaK alloy drips from a nozzle. As the droplet grows, water vapor flows into the sample chamber and forms a thin skin on the drop’s surface. (Image: via HZB)

Fingerprints of the metallic phase

The two decisive fingerprints of a metallic phase are the plasmon frequency and the conduction band. The groups were able to determine these two quantities using optical reflection spectroscopy and synchrotron X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy: While the plasmon frequency of the gold-colored, metallic “water skin” is about 2.7 eV (i.e. in the blue range of visible light), the conduction band has a width of about 1.1 eV with a sharp Fermi edge. Dr. Seidel said:

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

Provided by: Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres [Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.]

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