A team of researchers from the University of California, Irvine and the University at Albany has used computational methods to uncover new insights into the properties of seawater, a material that can hold vast amounts of information.
In a paper published online last week in the journal Nature Materials, the researchers analyzed the chemical composition of seawaters around the world.
They found that, on average, seawater contains around 4,000 to 6,000 chemical compounds, including many that were previously unknown.
The new research found that the vast majority of these compounds are made up of two types of atoms — hydrogen and carbon atoms — and they’re arranged in a way that allows them to bond together to form more stable molecules.
The researchers describe their research as a “meta-analysis” of the chemical properties of ancient seawater.
The results suggest that, prior to the Industrial Revolution, seawaters were rich in the types of compounds we now associate with modern life.
The team analyzed the chemistry of ancient and modern seawater samples collected at various sites around the globe.
They identified compounds that were similar to those found in modern seawaters, but in which the chemical bonds had changed, suggesting that these changes occurred hundreds of thousands of years ago.
“These are chemical changes that occur at sites that have never been studied before,” said Dr. Robert D’Arcy, a co-author of the study and a professor of physics at UCI.
“The most exciting thing about this is that the new information comes from the same place that we previously had no idea existed.”
The findings also point to how we can use these insights to develop better ways to filter out pollutants from our water supply.
For example, one chemical compound, nitric oxide, is used to disinfect water, and a study published last year in Nature Chemical Biology found that nitric acid is one of the most effective disinfectants.
Nitric acid, which is produced by bacteria, has been shown to destroy bacteria and viruses, but it also can be used as a way to kill microorganisms that live in our water.
The team says this could be an advantage in situations where nitric solutions are contaminated with pollutants.
They also found that certain types of chemical compounds — specifically carbon monoxide and hydrogen sulfide — are more stable than others.
The findings suggest that these compounds can be easily removed from seawater through filtration.
These findings could be a boon for water quality, Dr. D’Armacy said.
“I think this is a really exciting step forward for water chemistry and the study of chemical evolution,” he said.
“There is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the biological processes in seawater,” said study co-leader Dr. Michael Bauch, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at UCIrvine.
“However, the research points to new ways of looking at the properties and chemical properties that can be determined by analyzing a relatively small sample of seawat, which could then be used in ways that can improve water quality.”
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