UNC-CH scientists create world's smallest pieces of ice

the past decade or so has been to make small clusters of water molecules. They take three or four molecules at a time and study them in pieces, applying what they learn to water in bulk.

"The difficulty has been that every time people took six water molecules and tried to make this hexagonal ring structure characteristic of ice, they ended up with a high-density, collapsed cage structure, which is not what ice does," Miller said. "The difference is that bulk ice has a three-dimensional structure that holds the molecules in position like a scaffold. The six water molecule lacks this scaffolding, and the water molecules collapse into a non-ice-like arrangement."

The new work involved developing methods that would allow researchers to force individual ice molecules into shapes they wouldn't normally assume on their own.

"We used a liquid helium method that tricks nature into selectively making ice rings," he said. "Basically, by growing ice at very low temperatures, we starve the molecules of the energy they need to rearrange themselves from the hexagonal shape we want and into the collapsed cage shape we don't want."

The basic premise of the work is to try to understand hydrogen bonding in its most fundamental form, namely water, the chemist said.

"Pharmaceutical companies have literally spent hundreds of millions of dollars on molecular modeling simulations," he said. "They are trying to use modeling to aid in the development of new and interesting chemical systems, including new drugs. An important part of modern drug design is trying to predict the properties of new drugs on a computer. That approach is only as good as our understanding of the basic interactions between molecules, the very subject we are addressing with our research."

The work potentially could have a huge impact on the pharmaceutical industry, for example, he said.

Miller and his graduate students now are developing new ways of studying water's interacting hydrogen bon

Contact: David Williamson
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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