water: Chemical and Physical Properties

Chemically, water is a compound of hydrogen and oxygen, having the formula H 2O. It is chemically active, reacting with certain metals and metal oxides to form bases, and with certain oxides of nonmetals to form acids. It reacts with certain organic compounds to form a variety of products, e.g., alcohols from alkenes. Because water is a polar compound, it is a good solvent. Although completely pure water is a poor conductor of electricity, it is a much better conductor than most other pure liquids because of its self-ionization, i.e., the ability of two water molecules to react to form a hydroxide ion , OH , and a hydronium ion, H 3O +. Its polarity and ionization are both due to the high dielectric constant of water.

Water has interesting thermal properties. When heated from 0°C, its melting point, to 4°C, it contracts and becomes more dense; most other substances expand and become less dense when heated. Conversely, when water is cooled in this temperature range, it expands. It expands greatly as it freezes; as a consequence, ice is less dense than water and floats on it. Because of hydrogen bonding between water molecules, the latent heats of fusion and of evaporation and the heat capacity of water are all unusually high. For these reasons, water serves both as a heat-transfer medium (e.g., ice for cooling and steam for heating) and as a temperature regulator (the water in lakes and oceans helps regulate the climate).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: Compounds and Elements

Browse by Subject