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Piedmont researcher receives national award

Recognized for shedding new light on water

Chemist Richard J. Saykally of Piedmont, Calif., will be honored on March 28 by the world's largest scientific society for shedding new light on the world's most common yet mysterious substance: water. He will receive the Irving Langmuir Award in Chemical Physics from the American Chemical Society at its 219th national meeting in San Francisco.

Water is where 99 percent of all chemistry takes place, from making pharmaceuticals to conceiving children. Because water is so familiar, it's easy to forget its properties are highly unusual and extreme, said Saykally, a physical chemist at the University of California, Berkeley. "Because of this, it's extraordinarily difficult to describe liquid water theoretically."

Yet modeling this elusive substance on a computer -- recreating water in virtual space to predict exactly its behavior and influences -- is precisely what Saykally aims to do.

"The essential question is, what makes water wet?" he said. "Why does it have such extremely high melting and boiling points compared with similar compounds? Why is it less dense when it becomes solid than when it is liquid? And its solvent properties are unique. That's just the beginning."

At the root of water's remarkable properties is what Saykally calls "strong tetrahedral hydrogen bonding." That means the two hydrogen atoms of one molecule are attracted to the oxygen atom of another. Further complicating the picture, a single water molecule tends to interact not just with its neighbors but with others tens -- even hundreds -- of molecules away.

"So our approach to solving the problem is to build up the liquid one molecule at a time and, at every step, to understand every detail about it," he explained.

Saykally's team started with two molecules and is up to eight. Along the way, the team has developed innovative laser tools and techniques that reveal the nature of water on a quantum as well as
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Contact: Christina Curtin
c_curtin@acs.org
202/872-4400
American Chemical Society
21-Mar-2000


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