Science often feels like magic, so it's no surprise that the roots of science are partially in, well, magical thinking.
In the ancient histories of regions like China, India, Greece, and the Muslim world, alchemy was a practice that aimed to do things such as create a potion for eternal life, or turn base (or common) metals like lead into valuable and rare metals, like gold. That didn't exactly work out, except ...
Though it was based on incorrect understandings of human biology and the elements, this type of thinking was what eventually led to the first laboratories and to chemistry—the study of elements and compounds, and how they interact. Alchemy may have been fantastical, but chemistry? It's just plain fantastic. And occasionally, it does things that are awfully close to what alchemists were pursuing all along.
Like turning water into metal.
How is that possible?
It sounds impossible, yet that is essentially what a team of scientists at the Czech Academy of Sciences in Prague did. Essentially.
(What follows is a little mind-blowing, so hold tight and we'll break it down more as best we can!)
First, they took a syringe of liquid metals—containing sodium and potassium—and placed it in a vacuum (a sealed airspace with nothing else in it). Then they exposed droplets from the syringe to purified water vapour. For a few seconds, the water vapour cooled and quickly formed a thin shell around the metal drop. And then, as the water rapidly absorbed electrons from the metal, it took on a golden shine.
For a few moments, it became metallic water.
What is a metal?
Is that a metal, though? We tend to think of metals as shiny, solid, and hard. Things like steel, platinum, iron, bronze, silver, and gold. But metals are actually quite varied. Mercury is liquid at room temperature. And aluminum is something that can be bent and even torn with our bare hands.
What is a major key to something being a metal is its ability to conduct electricity and heat. This means that an electric charge is carried by the substance easily. Though we correctly think of water as being a very dangerous conductor of electricity (which is why you should never use an electrical appliance near a shower, bathtub, or sink), this only happens due to the salts suspended in water. Purified water—water with nothing but water molecules inside—does not conduct electricity.
That's what made this experiment so incredible. Not only did this metallic purified water conduct electricity, it also took on the shiny appearance of a metal.
It was golden even!
Can water become a stable metal?
Creating this metallic water was an immense achievement for these scientists. But it only lasted for a few seconds, and needed very controlled circumstances to happen at all. Which makes one wonder ...
Can water be turned into a stable metal?
So, spoiler alert: You will never see a bar of metal water for sale in a hardware store next to sheets of aluminum and iron rods. But it is possible. With a lot of pressure.
Metals conduct electricity because the electrons in their molecules easily 'overlap' between atoms. This is what allows an electrical current to travel through the substance. The overlapping electrons create a current superhighway!
For this to happen to purified water, scientists estimate that you would need around 220 million psi (pounds per square inch) of pressure. This would squeeze the water molecules together until the electrons broke through between atoms. In other words, inside the core of a gas giant like Jupiter or Saturn you might find metal water.
But with those conditions impossible to recreate on Earth, this recent experiment was the next best thing. Turning water into metal. Is it magic? Nope. It's chemistry. It's science.
Which in our minds is just as amazing!