For a substance that comprises about two-thirds of the human body and 70 percent of the planet Earth, knowledge about water has until recently been unusually sparse.
Honored in Science Magazine as one of the top ten most important discoveries in 2004, the research of Yale chemistry professor Mark Johnson has tried to close that gap, yielding revolutionary reports on the effects and transportation of electrically charged water molecules.
“Water is the most important molecule to life here on earth but it’s one of the least understood,” Nathan Hammer said, a member of the Johnson team.
The team has been researching the fundamentals of water molecule interaction that Johnson said could be necessary for other scientists to really understand their discipline.
“I would say since 1950 people have had ideas about how to theoretically make models that account for water’s behavior, but everyone who thinks they’ve solved it realizes five years later that it’s more tricky,” Johnson said.
According to Gary Weddle, a current member of Johnson’s laboratory and a professor at Fairfield University, technological advancement is responsible for the sudden unearthing of information.
“This laboratory has been looking at this problem since 1988,” Weddle said. “When I was an undergraduate, the tools weren’t there to get an answer. It all came together this year; it was a question of having the right equipment.”
The new equipment is a one-of-a-kind, custom-made laser system that uses various beam wavelengths to reveal information about how water molecules bond to each other.
Water molecules in the form of crystals only break apart at specific frequencies. Different frequencies correspond to different colors, and molecules can be identified by the laser’s color.
The custom-made laser can produce beams at extremely low frequencies — technology to which Johnson credits his recent recognition.
“When you want to look at fundamental charging, you need low energies, and that’s when we started to really make headlines,” he said.
In addition to the laser, Johnson said the specificity of the research has put his lab on the map.
“We look at each individual molecule in order to understand what’s happening in a large cluster of water molecules,” Johnson said.
However, the machinery itself does not shed light on the basic interactions of water molecules that have been ignored and misunderstood for the past 50 years. The duty of interpreting the data falls to the operator.
Erica Price, a member of the research team, said Johnson took on the role of both teacher and partner in the lab. She said Johnson is a personable character and is on a first-name basis with all who work in his lab.
“He is always constantly teaching, going to the blackboard and explaining to us why things work and why they don’t,” Hammer said.
Johnson and his team will once again return to the blackboard to continue the award-winning research. Weddle said the team’s next goal is to achieve high resolution separation, a task still beyond technology’s abilities.