Why do scientists spend time looking for water on other planets? Why is water so important? It is because water is essential to life as we know it. Water is one of the more abundant molecules and the one most critical to life on Earth. Approximately 60–70 percent of the human body is made up of water. Without it, life as we know it simply would not exist.
The polarity of the water molecule and its resulting hydrogen bonding make water a unique substance with special properties that are intimately tied to the processes of life. Life originally evolved in a watery environment, and most of an organism’s cellular chemistry and metabolism occur inside the watery contents of the cell’s cytoplasm. Special properties of water are its high heat capacity and heat of vaporization, its ability to dissolve polar molecules, its cohesive and adhesive properties, and its dissociation into ions that leads to the generation of pH. Understanding these characteristics of water helps to elucidate its importance in maintaining life.
One of water’s important properties is that it is composed of polar molecules: the hydrogen and oxygen within water molecules (H2O) form polar covalent bonds. While there is no net charge to a water molecule, the polarity of water creates a slightly positive charge on hydrogen and a slightly negative charge on oxygen, contributing to water’s properties of attraction. Water’s charges are generated because oxygen is more electronegative than hydrogen, making it more likely that a shared electron would be found near the oxygen nucleus than the hydrogen nucleus, thus generating the partial negative charge near the oxygen.
As a result of water’s polarity, each water molecule attracts other water molecules because of the opposite charges between water molecules, forming hydrogen bonds. Water also attracts or is attracted to other polar molecules and ions. A polar substance that interacts readily with or dissolves in water is referred to as
Water’s States: Gas, Liquid, and Solid
The formation of hydrogen bonds is an important quality of the liquid water that is crucial to life as we know it. As water molecules make hydrogen bonds with each other, water takes on some unique chemical characteristics compared to other liquids and, since living things have a high water content, understanding these chemical features is key to understanding life. In liquid water, hydrogen bonds are constantly formed and broken as the water molecules slide past each other. The breaking of these bonds is caused by the motion (kinetic energy) of the water molecules due to the heat contained in the system. When the heat is raised as water is boiled, the higher kinetic energy of the water molecules causes the hydrogen bonds to break completely and allows water molecules to escape into the air as gas (steam or water vapor). On the other hand, when the temperature of water is reduced and water freezes, the water molecules form a crystalline structure maintained by hydrogen bonding (there is not enough energy to break the hydrogen bonds) that makes ice less dense than liquid water, a phenomenon not seen in the solidification of other liquids.
Water’s lower density in its solid form is due to the way hydrogen bonds are oriented as it freezes: the water molecules are pushed farther apart compared to liquid water. With most other liquids, solidification when the temperature drops includes the lowering of kinetic energy between molecules, allowing them to pack even more tightly than in liquid form and giving the solid a greater density than the liquid.
The lower density of ice, illustrated and pictured in Figure 2, an anomaly, causes it to float at the surface of liquid water, such as in an iceberg or in the ice cubes in a glass of ice water. In lakes and ponds, ice will form on the surface of the water creating an insulating barrier that protects the animals and plant life in the pond from freezing. Without this layer of insulating ice, plants and animals living in the pond would freeze in the solid block of ice and could not survive. The detrimental effect of freezing on living organisms is caused by the expansion of ice relative to liquid water. The ice crystals that form upon freezing rupture the delicate membranes essential for the function of living cells, irreversibly damaging them. Cells can only survive freezing if the water in them is temporarily replaced by another liquid like glycerol.
1. W. Humphrey W., A. Dalke, and K. Schulten, “VMD—Visual Molecular Dynamics,” Journal of Molecular Graphics 14 (1996): 33-38.
Link to Learning
Click here to see a 3-D animation of the structure of an ice lattice. (Image credit: Jane Whitney. Image created using Visual Molecular Dynamics VMD software.2)
2. W. Humphrey W., A. Dalke, and K. Schulten, “VMD—Visual Molecular Dynamics,” Journal of Molecular Graphics 14 (1996): 33-38.
Water’s High Heat Capacity
Water’s high heat capacity is a property caused by hydrogen bonding among water molecules. Water has the highest
Water’s Heat of Vaporization
Water also has a high
The fact that hydrogen bonds need to be broken for water to evaporate means that a substantial amount of energy is used in the process. As the water evaporates, energy is taken up by the process, cooling the environment where the evaporation is taking place. In many living organisms, including in humans, the evaporation of sweat, which is 90 percent water, allows the organism to cool so that homeostasis of body temperature can be maintained.
Water’s Solvent Properties
Since water is a polar molecule with slightly positive and slightly negative charges, ions and polar molecules can readily dissolve in it. Therefore, water is referred to as a
When ionic compounds are added to water, the individual ions react with the polar regions of the water molecules and their ionic bonds are disrupted in the process of
Water’s Cohesive and Adhesive Properties
Have you ever filled a glass of water to the very top and then slowly added a few more drops? Before it overflows, the water forms a dome-like shape above the rim of the glass. This water can stay above the glass because of the property of
Cohesion allows for the development of
These cohesive forces are related to water’s property of
Why are cohesive and adhesive forces important for life? Cohesive and adhesive forces are important for the transport of water from the roots to the leaves in plants. These forces create a “pull” on the water column. This pull results from the tendency of water molecules being evaporated on the surface of the plant to stay connected to water molecules below them, and so they are pulled along. Plants use this natural phenomenon to help transport water from their roots to their leaves. Without these properties of water, plants would be unable to receive the water and the dissolved minerals they require. In another example, insects such as the water strider, shown in Figure 6, use the surface tension of water to stay afloat on the surface layer of water and even mate there.
pH, Buffers, Acids, and Bases
The pH of a solution indicates its acidity or alkalinity.
2H2O (I) ↔ H+ (aq) + OH- (aq)
Hydrogen ions are spontaneously generated in pure water by the dissociation (ionization) of a small percentage of water molecules into equal numbers of hydrogen (H+) ions and hydroxide (OH-) ions. While the hydroxide ions are kept in solution by their hydrogen bonding with other water molecules, the hydrogen ions, consisting of naked protons, are immediately attracted to un-ionized water molecules, forming hydronium ions (H30+). Still, by convention, scientists refer to hydrogen ions and their concentration as if they were free in this state in liquid water.
The concentration of hydrogen ions dissociating from pure water is 1 × 10-7 moles H+ ions per liter of water. Moles (mol) are a way to express the amount of a substance (which can be atoms, molecules, ions, etc), with one mole being equal to 6.02 x 1023 particles of the substance. Therefore, 1 mole of water is equal to 6.02 x 1023 water molecules. The pH is calculated as the negative of the base 10 logarithm of this concentration. The log10 of 1 × 10-7 is -7.0, and the negative of this number (indicated by the “p” of “pH”) yields a pH of 7.0, which is also known as neutral pH. The pH inside of human cells and blood are examples of two areas of the body where near-neutral pH is maintained.
Non-neutral pH readings result from dissolving acids or bases in water. Using the negative logarithm to generate positive integers, high concentrations of hydrogen ions yield a low pH number, whereas low levels of hydrogen ions result in a high pH. An
The stronger the acid, the more readily it donates H+. For example, hydrochloric acid (HCl) completely dissociates into hydrogen and chloride ions and is highly acidic, whereas the acids in tomato juice or vinegar do not completely dissociate and are considered weak acids. Conversely, strong bases are those substances that readily donate OH– or take up hydrogen ions. Sodium hydroxide (NaOH) and many household cleaners are highly alkaline and give up OH– rapidly when placed in water, thereby raising the pH. An example of a weak basic solution is seawater, which has a pH near 8.0, close enough to neutral pH that marine organisms adapted to this saline environment are able to thrive in it.
Link to Learning
Watch this video for a straightforward explanation of pH and its logarithmic scale.
So how can organisms whose bodies require a near-neutral pH ingest acidic and basic substances (a human drinking orange juice, for example) and survive? Buffers are the key.
Other examples of buffers are antacids used to combat excess stomach acid. Many of these over-the-counter medications work in the same way as blood buffers, usually with at least one ion capable of absorbing hydrogen and moderating pH, bringing relief to those that suffer “heartburn” after eating. The unique properties of water that contribute to this capacity to balance pH—as well as water’s other characteristics—are essential to sustaining life on Earth.
Link to Learning
To learn more about water. Visit the U.S. Geological Survey Water Science for Schools All About Water! website.
Water has many properties that are critical to maintaining life. It is a polar molecule, allowing for the formation of hydrogen bonds. Hydrogen bonds allow ions and other polar molecules to dissolve in water. Therefore, water is an excellent solvent. The hydrogen bonds between water molecules cause the water to have a high heat capacity, meaning it takes a lot of added heat to raise its temperature. As the temperature rises, the hydrogen bonds between water continually break and form anew. This allows for the overall temperature to remain stable, although energy is added to the system. Water also exhibits a high heat of vaporization, which is key to how organisms cool themselves by the evaporation of sweat. Water’s cohesive forces allow for the property of surface tension, whereas its adhesive properties are seen as water rises inside capillary tubes. The pH value is a measure of hydrogen ion concentration in a solution and is one of many chemical characteristics that is highly regulated in living organisms through homeostasis. Acids and bases can change pH values, but buffers tend to moderate the changes they cause. These properties of water are intimately connected to the biochemical and physical processes performed by living organisms, and life would be very different if these properties were altered, if it could exist at all.
Which of the following statements is not true?
When acids are added to a solution, the pH should ________.
A molecule that binds up excess hydrogen ions in a solution is called a(n) ________.
Which of the following statements is true?
Discuss how buffers help prevent drastic swings in pH.
Buffers absorb the free hydrogen ions and hydroxide ions that result from chemical reactions. Because they can bond these ions, they prevent increases or decreases in pH. An example of a buffer system is the bicarbonate system in the human body. This system is able to absorb hydrogen and hydroxide ions to prevent changes in pH and keep cells functioning properly.
Why can some insects walk on water?
Some insects can walk on water, although they are heavier (denser) than water, because of the surface tension of water. Surface tension results from cohesion, or the attraction between water molecules at the surface of the body of water (the liquid-air/gas interface).
heat of vaporization of water
specific heat capacity
sphere of hydration