The Weirdness of Water Could Be The Answer: Marcia Barbosa at TEDxCERN (Full Transcript)

Marcia Barbosa

Marcia Barbosa – TRANSCRIPT

I do love water. I love to swim, to surf, and even to drink water. And do you know why I love water? Because I am water! Two-thirds of our body is made of water. And because of that, for the last fifteen years, kind of since high school, I have been studying water. And I have a secret to tell you: water is weird, pretty weird. OK, it’s weird, but it’s also fundamental to our lives, and fortunately, 70% of the planet is covered with water. But unfortunately, just 1% is clean water, 1% is water that we might be able to drink.

And that’s too little. Today, one in six people has lack of fresh water. And in 2050, it will be one in two people with lack of fresh water. Either you or me will have lack of fresh water. So, the world needs fresh water.

Please, don’t panic, because today I’m going to tell you how we can use the weirdness of water to help us get more fresh water. So, you see, water is very important. But when I tell people I work with water, they usually say to me, “Well, such a simple molecule. We know everything about water.” Even my mom tells me this. But that’s not true. Water is not simple, and you have many things in water that we still need to understand. OK. You’re not convinced.

Let’s compare water with another material: with silicon. Silicon is also abundant on the planet. 28% of the crust of the Earth is composed of silicon. And silicon also has a number of unique properties. And the fact that silicon has unique properties and that we have learned how to use these unique properties of silicon allows us today to have cell phones, computers, flat screens and all these instruments that govern our lives today. And, you know what? Silicon has just half a dozen anomalies.

Water? Water has seventy. Yes, 70 anomalies. So, it’s our duty to find ways to use these anomalous behaviors of water to have more clean water. So, how are we going to do that? Before answering this question, let me introduce you to two of the seventy anomalies of water.

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The first anomaly is the density anomaly. Most liquids contract under cooling. Water does the contrary. If you cool water, it expands. And that’s why ice, that you see on the screen, floats into liquid water, because ice occupies more volume, it is less dense, and it floats on the liquid surface. But much more interesting than ice floating into liquid water is the fact that zero-temperature water floats in four-temperature water.

See the beauty? When you have winter in the northern hemisphere, you have ice, followed by zero-temperature water, and far, at the bottom of the river or lake, you have the warm four-centigrade water, with fish and plants surviving. If water was as common as other materials, in the first winter, in the glacial time, it would freeze from the bottom to the top, and all life would be killed. It’s not that cool — literally cool.

So, now I come with the second anomaly. The second anomaly is the diffusion anomaly and it’s related to mobility. Water, when it’s denser, when it’s more compact, its molecules move faster. “OK, OK, Marcia is saying something wrong with that. I know that when I have more cars into traffic, the cars move slower. When I have more people in the shopping center, people move slower.” Water, when you have more water molecules, they move faster. Is not that bizarre? So, come one, what’s the mechanism for that? For that, I’m going to give you just a little class of physics.

So, water is composed of one oxygen, the big guy, and two hydrogens. And inside the water molecule, the interaction is the covalent interaction. But between molecules you have a second interaction, the hydrogen-bond interaction. So, what’s the difference between the two of them? Covalent is very close, is very strong and is very tight. Hydrogen bond is further apart and is twenty times weaker. OK? So, covalent bond is like marriage, or is like what marriage was supposed to be. You know, the particles are moving together and they’re very tight. Hydrogen bond is more like flirting. You are more distant, you flirt here, you flirt there, you flirt everywhere. OK.

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Now I got it. I got it. When I decrease the temperature and I have ice, I have all the particles together, and all the hydrogen bonds made. So, I’m further apart like frozen, I don’t move, but I have the hydrogen bonds. I heat a little bit the system, I break the bonds and particles can actually approach, and that’s why ice floats into water. But how does this increase mobility? Easy. It’s easier to flirt in a crowded party than to flirt in an empty party.

So, that’s why molecules actually move around when they have more particles, making bonds, disrupting bonds, making bonds, disrupting bonds. Isn’t that cool? But, you know, not always hydrogen bonds are a good thing. This deep and great love water has for making bonds might make water end up in bad company. Water might make bonds with something that is poisonous to us, or something that makes water undrinkable, like salt. So, the bonds are not always a good thing and, actually, the industry uses this property of water making bonds to throw away the waste or to produce things.

More industry, less clean water; more people, more need for clean water. So, now you can see why in 2050 we are having you without clean water and me with clean water, you know, because we need new scientific methods in order to get more clean water. And that is where the anomalies of water come about. Years ago, we found that the very same mechanism that makes water move faster, to diffuse faster also makes water flow faster when confined in nanotubes. Let me explain what I mean by faster.

In nanotubes, water flows 900 times faster than it would flow if the laws of physics that govern the sinks in our houses governed the nanotubes. So, water loves to be in these nanotubes. It enters and just ballistically flows. But salt doesn’t. Salt hates nanotubes. It has to undress the hydration shell of water to get inside the tubes. So, it doesn’t like nanotubes. So now, if you combine the love of water for nanotubes and the hate of salt, you have thousands of nanotubes put together as the perfect filter for desalinating water, water that we actually have in abundance on the planet. This is a possibility, a clear possibility for the future, when nanotubes become an industrial commodity. Great! However, and there’s always a “however”, I don’t live close to the sea.

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So, how can I get more fresh water, if I don’t live close to the sea? So, a few months ago, when I couldn’t sleep and I was surfing the internet, seeing, you know, weird animals, etc, I came across this beetle from the desert of Africa. This animal is capable of capturing the vapor air, transform it into liquid water and drink it. Come on, how does this animal does that? On the back of the animal, there is an upper surface in which there are molecules that love water. And they love it so badly that they transform vapor into liquid — which actually requires energy.

And then, there is a second layer that hates water. So, when the particles of liquid water come to the second layer, they just slide, as when water’s spilled on your sofa, which you covered with a polymer surface to avoid it getting wet. And then, the animal is so smart, this beetle, that he just leans to the front and water just comes directly to its mouth. Isn’t that perfect? Nature is perfect! So now, our group is developing a combination of those two mechanisms. We have water in nanotubes, flowing fast. The top of the nanotube loves water and the bottom of the nanotube hates water and we’re going to use that to transform vapor into liquid and into storage.

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