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Properties of Water

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Chemistry

Did you know that water is the only substance on Earth found naturally in all three states of matter? Despite being odourless, tasteless, and having no calorific value, water is essential to life and we can’t live without it. It plays a role in photosynthesis and respiration, dissolves many of the body’s solutes, enables hundreds of chemical reactions, and is essential for metabolism and enzyme function.

However, it is also an unusual molecule. Despite its small size, it has oddly high melting and boiling points and forms strong bonds with many other molecules, including itself. In this article, we’re going to look at why this is, alongside some of the other properties of water.

  • This article is a chemistry-focused view of the properties of water.
  • We will start by looking at the structure of water.
  • We’ll then see how this relates to its physical properties, including cohesion, adhesion, and surface tension.
  • We’ll also investigate water’s high specific heat capacity and melting and boiling points.
  • After that, we’ll look at why ice is less dense than water and why water is often called the universal solvent.
  • Finally, we'll explore some of water’s chemical properties: the way it self-ionises, and its amphoteric nature.

Structure of Water

The official name for water is dihydrogen monoxide. Looking more closely at this name gives us an idea of its structure. -hydrogen tells us that it contains hydrogen atoms, and di- indicates that it has two. -oxide refers to oxygen atoms, and mono- tells us that it has just one. Put this all together and we’re left with water: H2O. Here it is, shown below:

Properties of Water, water molecule, StudySmarterA water molecule. Anna Brewer, StudySmarter Originals

Water consists of two hydrogen atoms joined to a central oxygen atom by single covalent bonds. The oxygen atom has two lone pairs of electrons. These squeeze the two covalent bonds tightly together, reducing the bond angle to 104.5° and making water a v-shaped molecule.

Properties of Water, water molecule bond angle, StudySmarterThe bond angle in water. Anna Brewer, StudySmarter Originals

For more about the different shapes of molecules and the effect of lone pairs of electrons on bond angles, check out Shapes of Molecules.

Bonding in Water

Let’s now look at how water’s structure affects its bonding.

Hydrogen bonds are a type of intermolecular force. They occur due to the difference in electronegativity between hydrogen and an extremely electronegative atom, such as oxygen.

Electronegativity is an atom’s ability to attract a bonded pair of electrons. It results in the bonding electrons being found closer to one atom in a covalent bond than the other.

If you haven’t already, we’d recommend reading Intermolecular Forces. It will explain some of the concepts we mention here in much more detail.

As we know, water contains two hydrogen atoms bonded to a central oxygen atom by covalent bonds. Due to this, you’ll find hydrogen bonding between adjacent water molecules.

In the case of water, oxygen is a lot more electronegative than hydrogen. This means that oxygen pulls the bonded pair of electrons found in each of the oxygen-hydrogen bonds towards itself and away from hydrogen. The hydrogen becomes electron-deficient and we say that overall, the molecule is polar.

Because electrons have a negative charge, the oxygen is now slightly negatively charged and hydrogen slightly positively charged. We represent these partial charges with the delta symbol, δ.

Properties of water, polarity water molecule, StudySmarterThe polarity of water. Anna Brewer, StudySmarter Original

But how does this lead to the formation of hydrogen bonds? Well, hydrogen is a small atom. In fact, it is the smallest atom in the whole of the periodic table! This means that its partial positive charge is densely packed into one tiny space. We say that it has a high charge density. Because it is so positively charged, it is particularly attracted to negatively charged particles, such as other electrons.

What do we know about the oxygen atom in water? It contains two lone pairs of electrons! This means that hydrogen atoms in water molecules are attracted to the lone pairs of electrons in oxygen atoms in other water molecules.

The attraction between the densely charged hydrogen atom and oxygen’s lone pair of electrons is known as a hydrogen bond.

Properties of Water, water hydrogen bonding, StudySmarterHydrogen bonding between water molecules. Anna Brewer, StudySmarter Original

To summarise, we find hydrogen bonding when we have a hydrogen atom covalently bonded to an extremely electronegative atom with a lone pair of electrons. The hydrogen atom becomes electron-deficient and is attracted to the other atom’s lone pair of electrons. This is a hydrogen bond.

Only certain elements are electronegative enough to form hydrogen bonds. These elements are oxygen, nitrogen, and fluorine. Chlorine is also theoretically electronegative enough, but it doesn’t form hydrogen bonds. This is because it is a larger atom and the negative charge of its lone pairs of electrons is spread out over a larger area. The charge density isn’t great enough to properly attract the partially charged hydrogen atom, so it doesn’t form hydrogen bonds. However, chlorine does experience permanent dipole-dipole forces.

Just another reminder - we cover this topic in more detail in Intermolecular Forces.

Physical Properties of Water

Now that we’ve covered the structure and bonding of water, we can explore how this affects its physical properties. In this next section, we’ll look at the following properties:

  • Cohesion
  • Adhesion
  • Surface tension
  • Specific heat capacity
  • Melting and boiling points
  • Density
  • Ability as a solvent

Cohesive Properties of Water

Cohesion is the ability of particles of a substance to stick to each other.

If you splash a small amount of water across a surface, you’ll notice that it forms droplets. This is an example of cohesion. Instead of spreading out uniformly, water molecules stick to each other in clusters. This is due to the hydrogen bonding between neighbouring water molecules.

Adhesive Properties of Water

Adhesion is the ability of particles of a substance to stick to another substance.

When you pour water into a test tube, you’ll notice that the water appears to climb up the edges of the vessel. It forms what is known as a meniscus. When you measure the volume of the water, you have to measure from the bottom of the meniscus in order for your measurements to be completely accurate. This is an example of adhesion. It occurs when water forms hydrogen bonds with another substance, such as the sides of the test tube in this case.

Properties of Water, meniscus, StudySmarterA meniscus. Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Don’t get cohesion and adhesion mixed up. Cohesion is a substance’s ability to stick to itself, whereas adhesion is a substance’s ability to stick to another substance.

Surface Tension of Water

Have you ever wondered how insects are able to walk across the surface of puddles and lakes? It is due to surface tension.

Surface tension describes the way that molecules on the surface of a liquid act like an elastic sheet, and try to take up the least surface area possible.

This is where the particles on the surface of a liquid are strongly attracted to the other particles in the liquid. These outer particles are pulled into the bulk of the liquid, making the liquid take the shape with the least surface area possible. Due to this attraction, the surface of the liquid is able to withstand external forces, such as the weight of an insect. Water has a particularly high surface tension due to hydrogen bonding between its molecules. This is another example of the cohesive nature of water.

Specific Heat Capacity of Water

Specific heat capacity is the energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of a substance by one degree Kelvin or one degree Celsius.

Remember that a change of one degree Kelvin is the same as a change of one degree Celsius.

Changing the temperature of a substance involves breaking some of the bonds within it. Hydrogen bonds between water molecules are very strong and so require a lot of energy to break. This means that water has a high specific heat capacity.

Water’s high specific heat capacity means it offers many advantages to living organisms as water resists extreme temperature fluctuations. It helps them maintain a constant internal temperature, optimising enzyme activity.

Melting and boiling points of water

Water has high melting and boiling points due to the strong hydrogen bonds between its molecules, which require a lot of energy to overcome. This becomes apparent when you compare water to similar-sized molecules that don’t experience hydrogen bonds. For example, methane (CH4) has a molecular mass of 16 and a boiling point of -161.5 ℃, whereas water has a similar molecular mass of 18, but a much higher boiling point of exactly 100.0 ℃!

Density of water

You might know that most solids are denser than their respective liquids. However, water is a bit unusual - it is the other way round. Solid ice is a lot less dense than liquid water, which is why icebergs float at the top of the sea instead of sinking to the ocean floor. To understand why, we need to look more closely at water’s structure in the two states.

Liquid water

As a liquid, water molecules are constantly moving about. This means that the hydrogen bonds between the molecules are constantly being broken and reformed again. Some of the water molecules are very close together whilst others are further apart.

Solid ice

As a solid, water molecules are fixed into position. Each water molecule is bonded to four adjacent water molecules by hydrogen bonds, holding it in a lattice structure. The four hydrogen bonds mean that the water molecules are held a fixed distance from each other. In fact, in this solid state, they are held further apart than in their liquid form. This makes solid ice less dense than liquid water.

Properties of Water, ice lattice, StudySmarterAn ice lattice. Image credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Water as a solvent

The final physical property that we’ll look at today is water’s ability as a solvent.

A solvent is a substance that dissolves a second substance, called a solute, forming a solution.

Water is often referred to as the universal solvent. This is because it can dissolve a wide range of different substances. In fact, almost all polar substances dissolve in water. This is because water molecules are also polar. Substances dissolve when the attraction between them and a solvent is stronger than the attraction between solvent molecule and solvent molecule, and solute molecule and solute molecule.

In the case of water, the negative oxygen atom is attracted to any positively charged solute molecules, and the positive hydrogen atoms are attracted to any negatively charged solute molecules. This attraction is stronger than the forces holding the solute together, so the solute dissolves.

Chemical Properties of Water

All the ideas we explored above were examples of physical properties. These are properties that can be observed and measured without changing the chemical composition of the substance. For example, the water molecules in steam have the exact same chemical identity as the water molecules in ice - the only difference is their state of matter. However, chemical properties are properties that we see when a substance undergoes a chemical reaction. We’re going to focus on two of water’s chemical properties in particular.

  • Ability to self-ionise
  • Amphoteric nature

Self-ionisation of water

As a liquid, water exists in an equilibrium. Most of its molecules are found as neutral H2O molecules, but some ionise into hydronium ions, H3O+, and hydroxide ions, OH-. The molecules are constantly switching backwards and forwards between these two states, as shown by the equation below:

2H2O ⇋ H3O+ + OH-

This is known as self-ionisation. Water does this all by itself - it doesn’t need another substance to react with.

Amphoteric Nature of Water

Because water self-ionises, as we saw above, it can act amphoterically.

An amphoteric substance is one that can act as both an acid and a base.

Remember that an acid is a proton donor whereas a base is a proton acceptor. A proton is just a hydrogen ion, H+.

How does water do this? Well, look at the ions it forms when it self-ionises: H3O+ and OH- . The hydronium ion, H3O+, can act as an acid by losing a proton to form H2O and H+. The hydroxide ion, OH-, can act as a base by accepting a proton, forming H2O once again.

H3O+ → H2O + H+

OH- + H+ → H2O

If water reacts with other bases, it acts as an acid by donating a proton. If it reacts with other acids, it acts as a base by accepting a proton. You could say that water isn’t fussy - it just wants to react with everyone!

Properties of Water - Key takeaways

  • Water, H2O, consists of one oxygen atom bonded to two hydrogen atoms using covalent bonds.
  • Water experiences hydrogen bonding between molecules. This affects its properties.
  • Water is cohesive, adhesive, and has high surface tension.
  • Water has a high specific heat capacity and high melting and boiling points.
  • Solid ice is less dense than liquid water.
  • Water is often referred to as the universal solvent.
  • Water self-ionises into hydronium ions, H3O+, and hydroxide ions, OH-.
  • Water is an amphoteric substance.

Properties of Water

Water is tasteless, odorless, and colourless. It is cohesive and adhesive and has high surface tension. It also has a high specific heat capacity and high melting and boiling points. It is a good solvent and is also unusual in that solid ice is less dense than liquid water. Water also self-ionises and is amphoteric.

Physicochemical is another word for physical and chemical. Water’s physicochemical properties include its cohesive and adhesive nature, its high specific heat capacity, surface tension and melting and boiling points, its ability as a solvent, and its amphoteric nature. Water also self-ionises and is less dense as a solid than as a liquid. 

Water is tasteless, odorless, and slightly blue in colour. It is cohesive and adhesive and has high surface tension. It also has a high specific heat capacity and high melting and boiling points. It is a good solvent and is also unusual in that solid ice is less dense than liquid water. 

Substances with amphoteric properties are substances that behave as both an acid and a base. One such example is water.

Water is cohesive, meaning it sticks to itself. This is due to the strong hydrogen bonds between molecules.

Final Properties of Water Quiz

Question

What is the bond angle found in a water molecule?

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Answer

104.5° 

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Question

Oxygen is _____ electronegative than hydrogen.

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Answer

More

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Question

Name the strongest type of intermolecular force found between water molecules.

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Answer

Hydrogen bonding

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Question

Name the type of bonding found within water molecules.

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Answer

Covalent bonding

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Question

What is cohesion?

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Answer

The ability of particles of a substance to stick to each other. 

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Question

Why is water cohesive?

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Answer

Water molecules stick together in clusters thanks to the hydrogen bonding between them.

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Question

What is adhesion?

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Answer

The ability of particles of a substance to stick to another substance. 

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Question

Why is water adhesive?

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Answer

It can form hydrogen bonds with another substance, such as the sides of a test tube.

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Question

Why does water have a high surface tension?

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Answer

There are strong hydrogen bonds between adjacent water molecules. Due to this attraction, the surface of water can withstand external forces.

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Question

What is specific heat capacity?

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Answer

The energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of a substance by one degree Kelvin or one degree Celsius. 

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Question

Water has a _____ specific heat capacity.

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Answer

High

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Question

Water has _____ melting and boiling points.

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Answer

High

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Question

Solid ice is denser than liquid water. True or false? 

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Answer

False

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Question

_____ substances typically dissolve in water.

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Answer

Polar

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