When Scientists Created a New Form of Water Out of Thin Air

The state of the universe.
Nov. 7 2013 11:42 PM

The Curious Case of Polywater

In the 1960s, scientists discovered a new form of water. How did they get it so wrong?

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Soon after, in 1969, the Office of Naval Research hosted a special symposium on polywater—a reflection of the military’s strategic desire to avoid ceding a scientific lead in polywater to the Soviets. (Invitations were reportedly restricted to American scientists.) There, my great-uncle saw Ellis Lippincott, a University of Maryland chemist, give a talk on his inconclusive attempts to analyze the infrared spectrum absorbed by polywater. Lippincott had been working with tiny amounts of the substance, produced by the British scientist Bellamy and shipped across the ocean, and desperately wanted to get his hands on more of it. Afterward, my great-uncle approached Lippincott, and the two made an agreement on the spot: They would combine his skill in growing polywater and Lippincott’s expertise and access to equipment (at the time, his lab had one of two microscope spectrometers in existence).

“What we were after was to characterize it,” my great-uncle told me. “What was the structure of it?” To find out, they used spectroscopy techniques, analyzing the light spectrums given off or absorbed by a substance. What they found amazed them. The spectrum of infrared light absorbed by polywater didn’t match any of those in a database of roughly 100,000 substances. They also performed Raman spectroscopy, beaming an argon laser at the sample and measuring the light spectrum it emits afterward. Again, they obtained a unique reading.

What underlying chemical structure could possibly account for these strange characteristics? They proposed that instead of the Van der Waals forces that normally draw water molecules gently together, polywater was composed of molecules locked in place by stronger chemical bonds, somehow catalyzed by the quartz capillary tubes. The molecules were bonded in linked hexagons, the scientists proposed; in illustrations, they looked like honeycombs made up of water.

Polywater Diagram
The proposed molecular structure of polywater.

Courtesy of the National Bureau of Standards

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Just before the team submitted a draft of their analysis for publication, Uncle Bob told me, he coined a catchier term for the chemical everyone had been calling anomalous water. “That just didn’t seem right as a name to me, so I wanted to think of something better,” he said, handing me the original June 27, 1969, issue of Science, which he’d held onto for all these years. “The properties,” his team wrote in the paper, “are no longer anomalous, but rather, those of a newly found substance—polymeric water or polywater.”

The response was beyond anything they could have imagined. The new findings, catchy name, and prestige of the journal Science led the press to take notice of polywater for the first time. Within days, my great-uncle’s team was interviewed by the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Saturday Evening Post, and dozens of other outlets, as I saw from the yellowed clippings he’d kept in a gray folder. Some articles speculated that the work—both his team’s and the Soviets’—might one day lead to a Nobel Prize.

Over the next few months, polywater—and its uncanny resemblance to the world of science fiction—struck a nerve with the public. “It really caught on, because of the fact that it was water,” Uncle Bob told me. “If it had been an unusual structure of something else, nobody would have cared. But everybody uses water—your life depends on it.” Soon, he was fielding calls from industry reps inquiring about polywater’s commercial potential, perhaps as an industrial lubricant or a means of desalinating seawater. The government, fearful that a polywater research gap had developed between the United States and the Soviet Union, took an interest too: the Advanced Research Projects Agency (which later became the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) awarded a grant of $75,000 to Tycho Labs of Boston to mass-produce it. Once, after Deryagin stayed at my great-uncle’s house in Silver Spring while visiting the United States, CIA agents came calling afterward to debrief Uncle Bob about what had occurred.

It’s possible the CIA subscribed to the belief that, like ice-nine in Cat’s Cradle, polywater was capable of uncontrollably self-replicating. That fall, a scientist from Wilkes College named F.J. Donahoe published a letter in Nature in which he argued that the substance could be “the most dangerous material on Earth” and that scientists ought to “treat it as the most deadly virus until its safety is established.” (He was concerned that the polymerization of all the planet’s water could turn the Earth into a Venus, which he believed was desiccated for the same reason.) In response, many scientists—including my great-uncle, disgusted by what he saw as fear-mongering—pointed out Donahue’s logical fallacy: If polywater truly were more thermodynamically stable than water, it already would have proliferated without our intervention, in the small cracks and crevices abundant in nature.

But other scientists felt it did exist in nature, just in minute quantities. Some argued that the substance was responsible for the plasticity of clay. Others said it accounted for the ability of winter wheat seeds to survive in frozen ground and the way some animals are capable of lowering their body temperatures below 0 degrees Celsius without freezing. In total, nearly 100 scientific papers on polywater were published in the year 1970 alone, based on samples generated in labs across the country and fueled by funding from the U.S. Navy.

Still, a note of incredulity hung in the air. When news of polywater first became widely known, some scientists had been doubtful, arguing that impurities were responsible for the phenomenon. Even those who thought they’d produced polywater—including Lippincott and my great-uncle—tried to maintain a posture of skepticism, reporting their findings but leaving open the possibility they were somehow incorrect. “Polywater is so strange that we keep wondering what’s the big goof we’ve been making,” Lippincott told the Washington Post in 1970. “Is there something subtle that’s fooling us?”

* * *

When Denis Rousseau, a postdoc at the University of Southern California, first heard about polywater, he was as intrigued as anyone. “Sergio Porto, this brilliant Brazilian physicist I was working under, came running into the lab one day with the article from Science that your great-uncle had written, all excited,” Rousseau, now the chair of the physiology department at the Einstein College of Medicine, told me when I called him after visiting Uncle Bob. “I started working on it right away.”

He and Porto grew some of their own polywater, and one of the first things they did with it was try to replicate the Raman spectrum data in the paper. But whenever they attempted to get a reading, the laser burned the polywater into a black char. And the Raman spectrum data was a crucial part of my great-uncle’s paper. “That was the thing that led Stromberg to propose the structure,” Rousseau said. “Once I started thinking about it, some things became curious.”

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