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How protons move in water: scientists solve a chemical mystery of more than 200 years

These findings could help to better understand chemical processes of vital importance, such as photosynthesis or cellular respiration.

The way protons move through water was a phenomenon that had not been satisfactorily explained for 200 years, since Theodor Grotthuss proposed a theory about it . However, the results of a recent investigation conducted by an international team of academics has managed to demonstrate a theory that answers this question, reports Ben-Gurion University (Israel).

Despite the fact that the theory proposed by said scientist in 1806, known as Grotthuss Mechanism and that provides an explanation of how protons flow charges in a solution, this does not fully explain the phenomenon, since it does not account for the movement of protons at the molecular level. However, this old model is still widely accepted, even with its limitations.

In this context, scientists performed an X-ray absorption experiment to measure the effect of charge of protons in the inner electron structure of oxygen atoms in water, confirming that protons move through water in “three-molecule trains” of H2O, just as had been proposed by Professor Ehud Pines.

How do the protons move?

According to the scientists in their most recent research, published in the journal Angewandte Chemie, the results obtained show that the The presence of a proton disturbs three water molecules, forming “chains or trains” of ‘protonated’ water molecules.

“The train of molecules builds the tracks below them for their movement, and then dismantles the tracks and rebuilds them in front of them to continue go forward. It is a loop of tracks that disappear and reappear and that continues without end”, the authors explain.

“Debates about the Grotthuss mechanism and the nature of proton solvation in water have become heated. Understanding this mechanism is pure science that pushes the boundaries of our knowledge and changes one of our fundamental understandings of one of nature’s most important mass and charge transport mechanisms,” said Pines, who participated in testing his own postulate. .

“Everyone thought about this problem for more than 200 years, so it was a big enough challenge for me to decide to tackle it. Seventeen years later, I am pleased to have found and demonstrated the solution,” the author commented on his findings, which could shed new light on other chemical processes, such as photosynthesis, cellular respiration or energy transport in hydrogen fuel cells. .

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