Autoionization in Liquid Water

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Science  16 Mar 2001:
Vol. 291, Issue 5511, pp. 2121-2124
DOI: 10.1126/science.1056991

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The dissociation of a water molecule in liquid water is the fundamental event in acid-base chemistry, determining the pH of water. Because of the short time scales and microscopic length scales involved, the dynamics of this autoionization have not been directly probed by experiment. Here, the autoionization mechanism is revealed by sampling and analyzing ab initio molecular dynamics trajectories. We identify the rare fluctuations in solvation energies that destabilize an oxygen-hydrogen bond. Through the transfer of protons along a hydrogen bond “wire,” the nascent ions separate by three or more neighbors. If the hydrogen bond wire connecting the two ions is subsequently broken, a metastable charge-separated state is visited. The ions may then diffuse to large separations. If, however, the hydrogen bond wire remains unbroken, the ions recombine rapidly. Because of their concomitant large electric fields, the transient ionic species produced in this case may provide an experimentally detectable signal of the dynamics we report.

  • * To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: chandler{at}

  • Present address: Institute of Organic Chemistry, University of Zurich, Winterthurerstrasse 190, CH-8057 Zurich, Switzerland.

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