Structured Water: Don’t Believe The Hype

Is there a "fourth phase of water"? From time to time, you might see people discussing the health benefits of so-called hexagonal water, structured water, or exclusion-zone (EZ) water.

Is there a “fourth phase of water”? From time to time, you might see people discussing the health benefits of so-called hexagonal water, structured water, or exclusion-zone (EZ) water.

Kourtney Kardashian’s Poosh website was spruiking a US$2,500 “structured water filter” a few weeks ago. Last weekend even Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald got in on the act, running a now-deleted story on the virtues of “structured water”.

So what’s going on?

“EZ water” is nonsense. But let’s talk about what it’s supposed to be and how it’s supposed to work.

What is EZ or structured water?

EZ water originates from observations by Gerald Pollack, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Washington. He was studying the behaviour of water near “hydrophilic” surfaces, which are made of materials with a very strong attraction to water.

Pollack found that water pushes away objects such as plastic microspheres, salt, and even dye molecules from the region close to a very hydrophilic surface.

Pollack’s explanation for this behaviour is that the structure of water changes in the “exclusion zone”.

While water molecules are made of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom (with the familiar formula H₂O), Pollack believes EZ water has an extra hydrogen atom and an extra oxygen atom (formula H₃O₂). This change supposedly results in a negative electric charge and a layered hexagonal network arrangement of atoms in the water.

Hydrophilic surfaces exist in the human body’s cells, so some have argued EZ water is “more natural” than ordinary water and, therefore, must have manifold health benefits.

Tenuous health claims

The now-deleted Sydney Morning Herald article interviewed a supposed expert in water structure science called Rob Gourlay.

He makes many common claims about structured water. It is more natural and has a negative electric charge. It flows into our cells more quickly than ordinary water, and it has many other supposed health benefits.

Though the article failed to mention it, a quick search reveals Robert Gourlay’s job title as “chief scientist” of a company called Phi’on, which sells water structuring devices.

From the plausible to the preposterous about structured water

Let’s have a look at these claims. Some of them are plausible, while some are preposterous.

We know that water behaves differently near an interface with another substance because it no longer only interacts with other water molecules. Surface tension is a familiar example of this phenomenon.

We also know that water behaves differently if confined in a very small space, on a scale of billionths of a meter.

As such, there is no special reason to be immediately sceptical of Pollack’s experimental findings about the behaviour of water in the “exclusion zone”. They are indeed interesting, and many aspects have been reproduced.

But Pollack’s explanations for the behaviour have no basis.

Follow the atoms

If water somehow changed into a H₃O₂ form, simple arithmetic shows that turning two molecules of H₂O into one of H₃O₂ would leave an extra hydrogen atom floating around.

We would expect to see this hydrogen released as H₂ gas. Alternatively, the reaction would need to bring in extra oxygen from the air. A simple experiment would show that neither of these happens.

For all its interesting properties, EZ water cannot be anything but H₂O. In a peer-reviewed publication, Pollack does not propose the H₃O₂ structure. Other explanations explain his published experimental findings.

And the hexagonal structure for H₃O₂, Pollack proposes, if stable and rigid, would not flow like a liquid.

Water has no memory, including structured water

But suppose water in the exclusion zone did have some special structure. Could it be bottled and keep its properties?

All signs point to no.

In water with a neutral pH (neither acidic nor alkaline), about one molecule in every billion has an extra hydrogen atom that has jumped across from another molecule. This creates one positively charged H₃O+ ion and one negatively charged OH ion.

The extra protons (H+) that make H₃O+ ions are highly mobile – they rapidly leap from one molecule to another.

There are also short-lived attractions called hydrogen bonds between the oxygen atoms in one molecule and the hydrogen atoms in a neighbouring molecule. In liquid water at room temperature, these bonds only last millionths of a millionth of a second.

The rapid movement of hydrogen atoms, and the flickering on and off of hydrogen bonds, meaning that any structure in EZ water would dissipate very quickly. In bulk, water has forgotten its neighbours within picoseconds and switched its hydrogen atoms in milliseconds. This is why it is liquid.

Experiments using intense laser pulses to disrupt the structure of water also show that it recovers within picoseconds. So any bulk water structure different from the usual kind that flows from our taps does not last much longer than a few millionths of a second.

Water is water

So what does it all add up to? It is impossible to buy any other type of water than regular water. You can change the pH. You can change the dissolved ions and gases, but not the water itself.

The snake-oil merchants selling structured water products use scientific-sounding words that are generally meaningless. They are, at best, based on misinterpretations and abuses of Pollack’s experiments.

Pollack distances himself from most companies selling structured water products. He has his own structured water company, which sells a “filterless water filter”, among other products.The Conversation

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