Water (H2O) has a simple composition, but its dizzyingly interconnected hydrogen-bonded networks make structural characterizations challenging. In particular, the organization of water surfaces—a region critical to processes in cell biology and atmospheric chemistry—has caused profound disagreements among scientists.
Figure 1: A ‘snapshot’ from a molecular dynamic simulation reveals that water molecules align at air–water interfaces as coordinated pairs linked by hydrogen bonds. Copyright : 2012 RIKEN
Now, Tahei Tahara and colleagues from the RIKEN Advanced Science Institute in Wako, in collaboration with researchers in Japan and Europe, have uncovered the presence of strongly bonded water pairs at the air–water interface1, rather than previously hypothesized ‘ice-like’ surface structures.
Observing surface water molecules, just a few monolayers thick, requires special experimental techniques that prevent interference by more plentiful bulk particles. One such approach is called vibrational sum frequency generation (VSFG), a laser-based method that selectively vibrates interfacial molecules. Previous VSFG measurements of surface water showed two vibrations that resemble signals recorded from bulk ice and liquid water states. Some scientists have proposed that these vibrations correspond to a partially disordered mix of liquid and four-coordinated ice-like surface structures—a theory at odds with thermodynamic evidence.
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