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Top Story

For the first time, scientists catch water molecules passing the proton baton

Water conducts electricity, the process by which this familiar fluid passes along positive charges has puzzled scientists for decades. Now, an international team of researchers has finally caught water in the act, showing how water molecules pass along excess charges and, in the process, conduct electricity. Chemists call the process by which water conducts electricity the Grotthuss mechanism. When excess protons--the positively charged subatomic particles within atoms--are introduced into water, they pass quickly through the fluid, riding a transient, ever-shifting network of loose bonds between water molecules. By the Grotthuss mechanism, a water molecule can pick up an excess charge and pass it along to a neighbor almost instantaneously. The exchange is fundamental to understanding the behavior of water in biological and industrial settings. But it is also so fast and the vibrations between water molecules so great that the hand-off cannot be captured using traditional spectroscopy--a technique that scatters light against a molecule to learn about its structure.

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