Concerted hydrogen-bond breaking by quantum tunneling in the water hexamer prism

Science  18 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6279, pp. 1310-1313
DOI: 10.1126/science.aae0012

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Gear-like rotation by a wobbly water duo

The molecules in liquid water move about constantly, but on average they cling to each other through hydrogen bonds, like dancers who keep switching partners. Richardson et al. uncovered a fresh twist in this molecular dance (see the Perspective by Clary). Studying clusters of six molecules each—essentially the smallest three-dimensional water droplets—they observed coupled motion of two different molecules in the cluster. The process breaks two different hydrogen bonds concurrently in a pattern akin to rotating gears.

Science, this issue p. 1310; see also p. 1267


The nature of the intermolecular forces between water molecules is the same in small hydrogen-bonded clusters as in the bulk. The rotational spectra of the clusters therefore give insight into the intermolecular forces present in liquid water and ice. The water hexamer is the smallest water cluster to support low-energy structures with branched three-dimensional hydrogen-bond networks, rather than cyclic two-dimensional topologies. Here we report measurements of splitting patterns in rotational transitions of the water hexamer prism, and we used quantum simulations to show that they result from geared and antigeared rotations of a pair of water molecules. Unlike previously reported tunneling motions in water clusters, the geared motion involves the concerted breaking of two hydrogen bonds. Similar types of motion may be feasible in interfacial and confined water.

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