A Georgia Tech research team has discovered that water exhibits very different properties when it is confined to channels less than two nanometers wide behaving much like a viscous fluid with a viscosity approaching that of molasses. Determining the properties of water on the nanoscale may prove important for biological and pharmaceutical research as well as nanotechnology. The research appears in the March 15 issue of the journal Physical Review B.
In its bulk liquid form, water is a disordered medium that flows very readily. When most substances are compressed into a solid, their density increases. But water is different; when it becomes ice, it becomes less dense. For this reason, many scientists reasoned that when water is compressed (as it is in a nanometer-sized channel), it should maintain its liquid properties and shouldn't exhibit properties that are akin to a solid. Several earlier studies came to that very conclusion that water confined in a nano-space behaves just like water does in the macro world. Consequently, a number of scientists considered the case to be closed.
But when Georgia Tech experimental physicist Elisa Riedo and her team directly measured the force of pure water in a nanometer-sized channel, they found evidence suggesting that water was organized into layers. Riedo conducted these measurements by recording the force placed on a silicon tip of an atomic force microscope as it compressed water. The water was confined in a nanoscale thin film on top of a solid surface.
"Since water usually has a low viscosity, the force you would expect to feel as you compress it should be very small," said Riedo, assistant professor in Georgia Tech's School of Physics. "But when we did the experiment, we found that when the distance between the tip and the surface is about one nanometer, we feel a repulsive force by the water that is much stronger than what we would expect."