Water as a metal

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 is published now in Nature.

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 pressurised 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.

Providing electrons

An international collaboration of 15 scientists from eleven research institutions has now used a completely different approach to produce a 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.

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

Credit: © HZB/Nature