A Sweet Briar College Learning Resource — Spring Semester, 1999

H2O - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water

Professor Jill Granger

Water is a Chemical

Water plays an important role as a chemical substance. Its many important functions include being a good solvent for dissolving many solids, serving as an excellent coolant both mechanically and biologically, and acting as a reactant in many chemical reactions. Blood, sweat and tears... all solutions of water.

As chemists we consider water from many perspectives. It is our role to use physical and mathematical laws in application for useful purposes, including diverse perspectives such as living systems, materials and energy. The world of the chemist is a small world - atomic, molecular - which plays a large part in making our lives healthy, comfortable, and hopeful. Because of the diversity of the chemical world, it would be difficult to touch upon all of the applications of water. And for the same reason, it would be impossible to discuss the chemical aspects of water without touching upon the physical, mathematical, and biological aspects of the subject.

Let's start our discussion of water as a chemical with a look at its structure. From a molecular perspective, structure is one of the important features of a substance. Just as you might say that the shape of a key determines its function - which doors it can and cannot open - the structure of a molecule and its composition absolutely determines its functions and properties.

As chemists we have a vested interest not only in understanding how a substance may be used and broken down, but also in knowing how that substance is created. From this perspective let's look at the chemistry which creates water from its elements, hydrogen and oxygen, and the chemistry of water's breakdown, also known as Electrolysis.

Water may be a substance so common that we scarcely make note of it - We waste it, pollute it, let it run down the drain, flush it away... Certainly we take it for granted! However, chemically speaking, water is really not common at all. When compared to other compounds of similar size, composition, and structure - it is absolutely unique! In fact its properties are so unusual that it would be irreplaceable. Let's take a chemical look at these unusual properties, how they arise and what their implications are.

Chemicool Periodic Table

Selected by the SciLinks program, a service of National Science Teachers Association. Copyright 1999 - 2002


H20 - The Mystery, Art, and Science of Water
Chris Witcombe and Sang Hwang
Sweet Briar College