Home > Water (Molecule of the Month for January 2006 )
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Water has the chemical formula H2O, composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. It is often referred to in science as the universal solvent. Water is the only pure substance found naturally in all three states of matter: solid; liquid and gas. Water may take many forms; the solid state of water is commonly known as ice or amorphous solid water; the gaseous state is known as water vapour or steam; and the common liquid phase is generally called: simply, water.
An important feature of water is its polar nature. The water molecule forms an angle, with hydrogen atoms at the tips and oxygen at the vertex. Since oxygen has a higher electronegativity than hydrogen, the side of the molecule with the oxygen atom has a partial negative charge. A molecule with such a charge difference is called a dipole. The charge differences cause water molecules to be attracted to each other (the relatively positive areas being attracted to the relatively negative areas) and to other polar molecules. This attraction is known as hydrogen bonding, and explains many of the properties of water. Although hydrogen bonding is a relatively weak attraction compared to the covalent bonds within the water molecule itself, it is responsible for a number of water's physical properties. One such property is its relatively high melting and boiling point temperatures; more heat energy is required to break the hydrogen bonds between molecules. Hydrogen bonding also gives water its unusual behavior when freezing. When cooled to near freezing point, the presence of hydrogen bonds means that the molecules, as they rearrange to minimize their energy, form the hexagonal crystal structure of ice that is actually of lower density: hence the solid form, ice, will float in water. In other words, water expands as it freezes, whereas virtually all other materials shrink on solidification.
Water is also a good solvent due to its polarity. When an ionic or polar compound enters water, it is surrounded by water molecules. The relatively small size of water molecules typically allows many water molecules to surround one molecule of solute. The partially negative dipole ends of the water are attracted to positively charged components of the solute, and vice versa for the positive dipole ends. In general, ionic and polar substances such as acids, alcohols, and salts are relatively soluble in water, and nonpolar substances such as fats and oils are not. Nonpolar molecules stay together in water because it is energetically more favorable for the water molecules to hydrogen bond to each other than to engage in van der Waals interactions with nonpolar molecules. An example of an ionic solute is table salt; the sodium chloride, NaCl, separates into Na+ cations and Cl- anions, each being surrounded by water molecules. The ions are then easily transported away from their crystalline lattice into solution. An example of a nonionic solute is table sugar. The water dipoles make hydrogen bonds with the polar regions of the sugar molecule (OH groups) and allow it to be carried away into solution. The solvent properties of water are vital in biology, because many biochemical reactions take place only within aqueous solutions (e.g., reactions in the cytoplasm and blood).
Formal Chemical Name (IUPAC)
Update by Karl Harrison
(Molecule of the Month for January 2006 )