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Scientists Dive into Water's Peculiar 'No-Man's Land'

Jun 20, 2014 01:55 PM EDT

Scientists at the Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory are beginning to understand water's complex properties, particularly the mysterious low temperature "no man's land" - an insight that will help them better understand water's behavior at different states of matter.

The research, published June 18 in the journal Nature, details water's super-amplified properties at -51 degrees Fahrenheit (-46 degrees Celsius), a condition described as no man's land.

Using SLAC's Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser, the team investigated water's molecular structure in this exotic zone.

"Water is not only essential for life as we know it, but it also has very strange properties compared to most other liquids," lead author Anders Nilsson, deputy director of the SUNCAT Center for Interface Science and Catalysis, said in a statement.

"Now, thanks to LCLS, we have finally been able to enter this cold zone that should provide new information about the unique nature of water."

Scientists have known that water can exist in liquid form at extremely cold temperatures, but this research promises to improve their understanding of the more natural temperatures and states that are relevant to global ocean currents, climate and biology.

Water has many rather unusual traits, despite its simple structure, and these properties are amplified when purified water is supercooled.

Though no man's land is technically between -42 F (-41 C) and -172 F (-113 C), researchers looked as temperatures as low as -51 F. X-ray laser pulses just quadrillionths of a second long allowed researchers to capture rapid-fire snapshots showing water's detailed molecular structure in this mysterious zone just before it froze. Interestingly, they found that water's molecular structure transforms continuously as it enters this realm, and with further cooling the structural changes accelerate more dramatically than theoretical models had predicted.

Nilsson's team hopes to dive to even colder temperatures where water morphs into a glassy, non-crystalline solid.

"Our dream is to follow these dynamics as far as we can," Nilsson said. "Eventually our understanding of what's happening here in no-man's land will help us fundamentally understand water in all conditions."

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