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a little about the chemistry of water and its presence on Earth

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So I now know, following my previous post, a little more than I did about how water’s formed from molecular hydrogen and oxygen – you have to break the molecular bonds and create new ones for H2O, and that requires activation energy, I think. But I need to explore all of this further, and I want to do so in the context of a fascinating question, which I’m hoping is related – why is there so much water on Earth’s surface?

When Earth was first formed, from planetesimals energetically colliding together, generating lots of heat (which may have helped with the creation of H2O, but not in liquid form??) there just doesn’t seem to have been a place for water, which would’ve evaporated into space, wouldn’t it? Presumably the still-forming, virtually molten Earth had no atmosphere. 

The most common theory put out for Earth’s water is bombardment in the early days by meteors of a certain type, carbonaceous chondrites. These meteors were formed further out from the sun, where water would have frozen. Carbonaceous chondrites are known to contain the same ratio of heavy water to ‘normal’ water as we find on Earth. Heavy water is formed with deuterium, an isotope of hydrogen containing a neutron as well as the usual proton. Obviously there had to have been plenty of these collisions over a long period to create our oceans. Comets have been largely ruled out because, of the comets we’ve examined, the deuterium/hydrogen ratio is about double that of the chondrites, though some have argued that those comets may be atypical. Also there’s some evidence that the D/H ratio of terrestrial water has changed over time.

So there are still plenty of unknowns about the history of Earth’s water. Some argue that volcanism, along with other internal sources, was wholly or partly responsible – water vapour is one of the gases produced in eruptions, which then condensed and fell as rain. Investigation of moon rocks has revealed a D/H ratio similar to that of chondrites, and also that of Earth (yes, there’s H2O on the moon, in various forms). This suggests that, since it has become clear that the Moon and Earth are of a piece, water has been there on both from the earliest times. Water ice detected in the asteroid belt and elsewhere in the solar system provides further evidence of the abundance of this hardy little molecule, which enriches the hypotheses of researchers. 

But I’m still mystified by how water is formed from molecular, or diatomic, hydrogen and oxygen. It occurs to me, thanks to Salman Khan, that having a look at the structural formulae of these molecules, as well as investigating ‘activation energy’, might help. I’ve filched the ‘Lewis structure’ of water from Wikipedia.

It shows that hydrogen atoms are joined to oxygen by a single bond, the sharing of a pair of electrons. They’re called polar covalent bonds, as described in my last post on the topic. H2 also binds the two hydrogen atoms with a single covalent bond, while O2 is bound in a double covalent bond. (If you’re looking for a really comprehensive breakdown of the electrochemical structure of water, I recommend this site).

So, to produce water, you need enough activation energy to break the bonds of H2 and O2 and create the bonds that form H2O. Interestingly, I’m currently reading The Emerald Planet, which gives an example of the kind of activation energy required. The Tunguska event, an asteroid visitation in the Siberian tundra in 1908, was energetic enough to rip apart the bonds of molecular nitrogen and oxygen in the surrounding atmosphere, leaving atomic nitrogen and oxygen to bond into nitric oxide. But let’s have a closer look at activation energy. 

So, according to Wikipedia:

In chemistry and physics, activation energy is the energy which must be available to a chemical or nuclear system with potential reactants to result in: a chemical reaction, nuclear reaction, or various other physical phenomena.

This stuff gets complicated and mathematical very quickly, but activation energy (Ea) is measured in either joules (or kilojoules) per mole or kilocalories per mole. A mole, as I’ve learned from Khan, is the number of atoms there are in 12g of carbon-12. So what? Well, that’s just a way of translating atomic mass units (amu) to grams (one gram equals one mole of amu). 

The point is though that we can measure the activation energy, which, in the case of molecular reactions, is going to be more than the measurable change between the initial and final conditions. Activation energy destabilises the molecules, bringing about a transition state in which usually stable bonds break down, freeing the molecules to create new bonds – something that is happening throughout our bodies at every moment. When molecular oxygen is combined with molecular hydrogen in a confined space, all that’s required is the heat from a lit match to start things off. This absorption of energy is called an endothermic reaction. Molecules near the fire break down into atoms, which recombine into water molecules, a reaction which releases a lot of energy, creating a chain of reactions until all the molecules are similarly recombined. From this you can imagine how water could have been created in abundance during the fiery early period of our solar system’s evolution. 

I’ll end with more on the structure of water, for my education. 

As a liquid, water has a structure in which the H-O-H angle is about 106°. It’s a polarised molecule, with the negative charge on the oxygen being around 70% of an electron’s negative charge, which is neutralised by a corresponding positive charge shared by the two hydrogen atoms. These values can change according to energy levels and environment. As opposite charges attract, different water molecules attract each other when their H atoms are oriented to other O atoms. The British Chemistry professor Martin Chaplin puts it better than I could:

This attraction is particularly strong when the O-H bond from one water molecule points directly at a nearby oxygen atom in another water molecule, that is, when the three atoms O-H O are in a straight line. This is called ‘hydrogen bonding’ as the hydrogen atoms appear to hold on to both O atoms. This attraction between neighboring water molecules, together with the high-density of molecules due to their small size, produces a great cohesive effect within liquid water that is responsible for water’s liquid nature at ambient temperatures.

We’re all very grateful for that nature. 

Written by stewart henderson

September 24, 2018 at 10:32 am

Posted in chemistry, science, water

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the tides – a massive potential resource?

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A floating tidal turbine, Orkney islands, as seen on Fully Charged

A recent episode of Fully Charged, the Brit video series on the sources and harnessing of clean energy, took us again to the very windy Orkney Isles at the top of Scotland to have a look at some experimental work being done on generating energy from tidal forces. When you think of it, it seems a no-brainer to harness the energy of the tides. They’re regular, predictable, unceasing, and in some places surely very powerful. Yet I’ve never heard of them being used on an industrial scale.

Of course, I’m still new to this business, so the learning curve continues steep. Tide mills have been used historically here and there, possibly even since Roman times, and tidal barrages have been operating since the sixties, the first and for a long time the largest being the La Rance plant, off the coast of Brittany, generating 240 MW. A slightly bigger one has recently been built in Korea (254 MW).

But tidal barrages – not what they’re testing in the Orkneys – come with serious environmental impact issues. They’re about building a barrage across a bay or estuary with a decent tidal flow. The barrage acts as a kind of adjustable dam, with sluice gates that open and close, and additional pumping when necessary. Turbines generate energy from pressure and height differentials, as in a hydro-electric dam. Research on the environmental impact of these constructions, which can often be major civil engineering projects, has revealed mixed results. Short-term impacts are often devastating, but over time one type of diversity has been replaced by another.

Anyway, what’s happening in the Orkneys is something entirely different. The islanders, the Scottish government and the EU are collaborating through an organisation called EMEC, the European Marine Energy Centre, to test tidal power in the region. They appear to be inviting innovators and technicians to test their projects there. A company called ScotRenewables, for example, has developed low-maintenance floating tidal turbines with retractable legs, one of which is currently being tested in the offshore waters. They’re designed to turn with the ebb and flood tides to maximise their power generation. It’s a 2 MW system, which of course could be duplicated many times over in the fashion of wind turbines, to generate hundreds if not thousands of megawatts. The beauty of the system is its reliability – as the tidal flow can be reliably predicted at least eighteen years into the future, according to the ScotRenewables CEO. This should provide a sense of stability and confidence to downstream suppliers. Also, floating turbines could easily be removed if they’re causing damage, or if they require maintenance. Clearly, the effect on the tidal system would be minimal compared to an estuarine barrage, though there are obvious dangers to marine life getting too close to turbines. The testing of these turbines is coming to an end and they’ve been highly successful so far, though they already have an improved turbine design in the wings, which can be maintained either in situ or in dock. The design can also be scaled down, or up, to suit various sites and conditions.

rotors are on retractable legs, to protect from storms, etc

Other quite different turbine types are being tested in the region, with a lot of government and public support, but I got the slight impression that commercial support for this kind of technology is somewhat lacking. In the Fully Charged video on this subject (to which I owe most of this info), Robert Llewelyn asked the EMEC marketing manager whether she thought tidal or wave energy had the greatest future potential (she opted for wave). My ears pricked up, as wave energy is another newie for me. Duh. Another post, I suppose.

As mentioned though in this video, a lot of the developments in this tidal technology have come from shipbuilding technology, from offshore oil and gas technology, and from maritime technology more generally, as well as modern wind turbine technology, further impressing on me that skills are transferable and that the cheap clean energy revolution won’t be the economic/employment disaster that the fossil fuel dinosaurs predict. It’s a great time for innovation, insight and foresight, and I can only hope that more government and business people in Australia, where I seem to be stuck, can get on board.

fixed underwater tidal turbine being tested off the Orkney Islands

Written by stewart henderson

October 11, 2017 at 6:27 am