Water is, quite literally, a magical substance. Water makes Earth a living planet. It covers three-fourths of our blue marble and is the stuff from which all life as we know it is based. H2O composes 65% of our bodies and is the engine of all weather. Yet, Earth’s most abundant substance is also one of the most unusual when it comes to the physical properties that water should have versus those that it actually possesses.
Some of the most salient and bizarre properties of water include the fact that, at room temperature, it is extremely rare to find other substances in liquid form. Theoretically, ice should not float in water, as chemistry indicates that substances get denser when they are cooled. If we go strictly by theory, water should also boil at temperatures around -62° Celsius.
These are just three of the many anomalous properties of water that defy conventional chemistry explanation. There is, however, a simple reason for water’s strong defiance of chemistry’s norm: hydrogen. The only element without a neutron, hydrogen tends to form very strong chemical bonds. And when it comes to the H2O molecule, it’s one of the strongest covalent bonds in nature. This simple fact accounts for both the reasons why many of water’s physical properties are so unusual and also why water is so resilient. This week, we celebrate the magic of water by exploring water as a space traveler, a life nurturer, and an energy giver.
The most usual of substances is also among the most unusual in behavior.
Water as a Space Traveler
Space is a rough place. No living thing would survive more than a few seconds if exposed to it. Rocks the size of sand grains travel so fast that they have knocked out satellites and damaged the International Space Station. The Solar Wind, which clocks speeds of one million miles-per-hour, breaks DNA and most compounds it finds in its path. Earth would be barren if it were not for the magnetic field that protects us from this powerful, cosmic wind. Yet, there is one hardy, resilient substance that can travel through space for billions of years unperturbed by the harshness of it: water.
Thanks to the strong and stable bond created by the hydrogen it contains, water is the ultimate space traveler. Nine years ago on Water Day, National Geographic wrote an interesting article on how pervasive water is in our solar system:
“Really, there’s a heck of a lot of H2O in our solar system, which is perhaps unsurprising, considering that hydrogen is the most abundant element in the known universe. In addition to the recent discovery of water on our own moon, several moons of other planets are suspected of having vast subsurface oceans, and lots more astronomical bodies definitely have large amounts of water ice.”
Our understanding has progressed from assuming water was somehow unique to Earth a hundred years ago, to finding it in every corner of our solar system: planets, moons (including ours which has no atmosphere), comets, and asteroids. Today, there is scientific consensus around the theory that we got our water via high-speed comets that crashed into our planet when it cooled down approximately three billion years ago.
Water as a Life Nurturer
If water followed the chemical properties that it should display―like boiling at -62° Celsius or ice dropping to the bottom of the ocean (versus floating)―life on Earth would either not exist or would be extremely different from what we know it to be. There are dozens of theories about how life got started on our planet, which range from proteins forming into DNA in mud to hydrothermal ocean vents to meteorites from outer space. However, no matter the theory, all have one thing in common: water.
From all we know, water is essential to life. Brian Glazer, an oceanographer and astrobiologist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, put it well when he was interviewed for an article in LiveScience a couple of years ago:
“When we find water here on Earth — whether it be ice-covered lakes, whether it be deep-sea hydrothermal vents, whether it be arid deserts — if there’s any water, we’ve found microbes that have found a way to make a living there.”
We have yet to find a place on Earth that has water and no life. That is precisely why NASA’s motto for finding life elsewhere is “follow the water,” as “water’s unique chemical and physical properties are essential to human survival.” Just as hydrogen gives water unique abilities to be a resilient space traveler, it also gives water the unique properties NASA refers to for nurturing life here on Earth.
Water as an Energy Giver
Water provides energy in all living beings. It is the medium that cells use to make energy whether through photosynthesis, the breaking of food molecules, or the chemical reactions that power our brains. This is because hydrogen makes water the “universal solvent.” Water dissolves more substances than any other liquid, enabling the release of energy from the breaking of bonds in the molecules of these substances. The U.S Geological Survey explains:
“It is water’s chemical composition and physical attributes that make it such an excellent solvent. Water molecules have a polar arrangement of the oxygen and hydrogen atoms—one side (hydrogen) has a positive electrical charge and the other side (oxygen) had a negative charge. This allows the water molecule to become attracted to many other different types of molecules. Water can become so heavily attracted to a different molecule, like salt (NaCl), that it can disrupt the attractive forces that hold the sodium and chloride in the salt molecule together and, thus, dissolve it.”
The reality is that water is central to everything we do, including how we get the energy to power our society. The energy we can get from water, in so many forms, can help us move away from fossil fuels and into a sustainable future. Whether capturing energy from the movements in oceans (the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that 66% of all power in the U.S. could be supplied by the energy of coastal waves) or releasing hydrogen from water molecules (this would provide unlimited energy to the world), water contains energy, lots of it.
At Joi Scientific, we are working to unlock the energy secrets of this noblest of substances on our planet by extracting hydrogen from ocean water in a way that can provide us with a clean, energetic fuel that does not warm the planet and is as abundant as the water that contains it.
Sturdy as it is to withstand billions of years in outer space, water is easily contaminated, becoming toxic and even unfriendly to life in many areas of the world. The world’s oceans, for instance, contain microplastics that result when we wash our clothes and the water flows to the sea. There are hundreds of rivers with water so polluted, they cannot be touched without the danger of infection. The fact is that this incredibly hardy substance is also quite fragile―and for many communities around the world―scarce.
As we become aware of all the magic of water, we realize the need to care and protect it as we go through our daily lives. The most abundant of substances should be available for all to thrive in its purest life-nurturing, energetic, and resilient form.
As the Hydrogen 2.0 ecosystem gains momentum, we’ll be sharing our views and insights on the new Hydrogen 2.0 Economy. We also update our blog every week with insightful and current knowledge in this growing energy field.