Sunday, December 7, 2008

Is Polywater a Hoax?

Probably known by most people as the mysterious substance called ice-nine in Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Cat’s Cradle”. Given the advances in polymer chemistry, is polywater even technically feasible?

By: Vanessa Uy

Of all the possible weapons of mass destruction in our disposal, a weapon based on polywater would probably be the end of mankind. Imagine a weapon that would render water to freeze or solidify at room temperature. Nutrition and other vital life processes would grind to a halt. Every biological entity on Earth dependent on water will cease to exist. From the smallest microorganism to the mightiest redwood tree – even people – would soon die if polywater is unleashed on our planet’s hydrological system. And we haven’t even taken into consideration yet the climatic effects if all the water on our planet is unable to circulate. Despite being the perfect “doomsday weapon”, why are the various military intelligence agencies around the world voiced their concerns over polywater being used as a possible WMD by various terrorist groups?

Misanthropic novelist Kurt Vonnegut first described the concept behind polywater on his book titled Cat’s Cradle. In this novel, he referred to polywater as ice-nine, a theoretical substance that could polymerize the molecular structure of water allowing it to freeze or solidify at room temperature. In Cat’s Cradle, ice-nine was accidentally released into the Earth’s hydrological system, contaminating ordinary water and thus turning it into polywater.

During the mid 1960’s in Soviet era Russia, a scientists named Boris Deryagin – also spelled Derjaguin – did laboratory experiments to find out whether water molecules can be polymerized the same way as monomers found in crude oil being used in industrial scale polymerization to make useful plastics. Another Russian scientist during the same period named Nikolai Fedyakin also experimented with the concept a few years later. When the “alleged” lab results of their secret studies managed to leak out of the then Iron Curtain. Rumors circulated in the West that Soviet scientists managed to turn water in the laboratory into a rubbery jelly-like substance that you would need a spoon in order to drink. When the rumors persisted, the US Bureau of Standards did their own investigative work about polywater back in 1969. Yet, the polywater rumors seem to have mysteriously vanished after the US Bureau of Standards investigation into the matter. Despite of the “cloak and dagger” behind the study, is it even possible to polymerize water molecules to turn it into some kind of plastic?

The molecular structure of ordinary water allows it to perform extraordinary feats that no other chemical substance on Earth – natural or man-made – can match. The tenacious hydrogen bonds - is primarily responsible for most of the “oddities” of water’s behavior. Their strength is made manifest by the large amounts of energy required to break them. That is why so much heat must be supplied to raise the temperature of water, and why it’s freezing and boiling points are abnormally high. Based on this, does this mean that polywater has potential for use as a heat and cold-resistant aerospace material if water polymerization can be made scientifically feasible? Could be, but unless further scientific studies on polywater that are peer-reviewed beyond reproach might dispel the myths behind it’s existence. Or will polywater just become another scientific crank like cold fusion or the late 1980’s era ballotechnic red mercury. Only time will tell.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Water: A Maverick and a Radical among Compounds?

It is the one of the most abundant substance on Earth, and yet it is one of the least understood. Are we ignoring the secrets behind water at our own peril?

By: Vanessa Uy

Though most people choose to remain ignorant about the whimsically willful ways of water despite of its primary importance in their lives. A number of wars of “recent” history are full of accounts vehemently denying that their war is about water. And instead blame abstract concepts like sovereignty disputes because a conflict over water has been poorly blessed with a perception of “unsexiness” for much of history. But nonetheless, we can never deny the ever-varied usefulness of water.

Relatively recent advances in the science of chemistry had only begun to explain the radical and maverick properties of water. Water molecules are bound together in ways unlike those of any other compound; because of this water possesses physical and chemical properties that can only be described as unique and paradoxical.

Water is one of those rare substances that are heavier in their liquid state than in their solid form. This is the reason why ice floats. As a liquid, water can rise uphill despite of the force of gravity – most of us know this as capillary action. Water is also very benign that more than a myriad forms of life can thrive within it – and yet so corrosive that, given enough time, water will disintegrate most of the metals found on the Periodic Table. It can also change its state with uncanny ease – sometimes existing simultaneously as a solid (ice), liquid (water), and a gas (water vapor) around the same body of water. But paradoxically, water must either yield or absorb tremendous amounts of energy to achieve these state transformations. Thus making water a very good coolant due to its very high heat capacity.

This is just a “starter list” of what makes water a radical and a maverick among the chemical compounds found on our planet. Our cheap but powerful “modern” computers are very dependent on water for their production. So does the cars, and the gasoline being extracted from crude oil – all of these processes require water. And yet paradoxically, millions of our poorer brethren are dying every year because they are denied access to safe drinking water. While we in affluent nations are wasting it like its out of fashion. Kind of unfair isn’t it?