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.

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