water, a substance composed of the chemical elements hydrogen and oxygen and existing in gaseous, liquid, and solid states. It is one of the most plentiful and essential of compounds. A tasteless and odourless liquid at room temperature, it has the important ability to dissolve many other substances. Indeed, the versatility of water as a solvent is essential to living organisms. Life is believed to have originated in the aqueous solutions of the world’s oceans, and living organisms depend on aqueous solutions, such as blood and digestive juices, for biological processes. Water also exists on other planets and moons both within and beyond the solar system. In small quantities water appears colourless, but water actually has an intrinsic blue colour caused by slight absorption of light at red wavelengths.

Although the molecules of water are simple in structure (H2O), the physical and chemical properties of the compound are extraordinarily complicated, and they are not typical of most substances found on Earth. For example, although the sight of ice cubes floating in a glass of ice water is commonplace, such behaviour is unusual for chemical entities. For almost every other compound, the solid state is denser than the liquid state; thus, the solid would sink to the bottom of the liquid. The fact that ice floats on water is exceedingly important in the natural world, because the ice that forms on ponds and lakes in cold areas of the world acts as an insulating barrier that protects the aquatic life below. If ice were denser than liquid water, ice forming on a pond would sink, thereby exposing more water to the cold temperature. Thus, the pond would eventually freeze throughout, killing all the life-forms present.

Water occurs as a liquid on the surface of Earth under normal conditions, which makes it invaluable for transportation, for recreation, and as a habitat for a myriad of plants and animals. The fact that water is readily changed to a vapour (gas) allows it to be transported through the atmosphere from the oceans to inland areas where it condenses and, as rain, nourishes plant and animal life. (See hydrosphere: The hydrologic cycle for a description of the cycle by which water is transferred over Earth.)

The water on the surface of Earth is found mainly in its oceans (97.25 percent) and polar ice caps and glaciers (2.05 percent), with the balance in freshwater lakes, rivers, and groundwater. As Earth’s population grows and the demand for fresh water increases, water purification and recycling become increasingly important. Interestingly, the purity requirements of water for industrial use often exceed those for human consumption. For example, the water used in high-pressure boilers must be at least 99.999998 percent pure. Because seawater contains large quantities of dissolved salts, it must be desalinated for most uses, including human consumption.

This article describes the molecular structure of water as well as its physical and chemical properties. For other major treatments of water, see climate; environmental works; hydrosphere; ice; and pollution.


The water molecule is composed of two hydrogen atoms, each linked by a single chemical bond to an oxygen atom. Most hydrogen atoms have a nucleus consisting solely of a proton. Two isotopic forms, deuterium and tritium, in which the atomic nuclei also contain one and two neutrons, respectively, are found to a small degree in water. Deuterium oxide (D2O), called heavy water, is important in chemical research and is also used as a neutron moderator in some nuclear reactors.

Although its formula (H2O) seems simple, water exhibits very complex chemical and physical properties. For example, its melting point, 0 °C (32 °F), and boiling point, 100 °C (212 °F), are much higher than would be expected by comparison with analogous compounds, such as hydrogen sulfide and ammonia. In its solid form, ice, water is less dense than when it is liquid, another unusual property. The root of these anomalies lies in the electronic structure of the water molecule.

The water molecule is not linear but bent in a special way. The two hydrogen atoms are bound to the oxygen atom at an angle of 104.5°.
structure of the water molecule showing the two hydrogen atoms bound to the oxygen atom at an angle of 104.5 degrees.

The O―H distance (bond length) is 95.7 picometres (9.57 × 10−11 metres, or 3.77 × 10−9 inches). Because an oxygen atom has a greater electronegativity than a hydrogen atom, the O―H bonds in the water molecule are polar, with the oxygen bearing a partial negative charge (δ−) and the hydrogens having a partial positive charge (δ+).

The electron arrangement in the water molecule can be represented as follows.
structure of the water molecule showing the electron arrangement

Each pair of dots represents a pair of unshared electrons (i.e., the electrons reside on only the oxygen atom). This situation can also be depicted by placing the water molecule in a cube.

Each ↑↓ symbol represents a pair of unshared electrons. This electronic structure leads to hydrogen bonding.


The liquid state of water has a very complex structure, which undoubtedly involves considerable association of the molecules. The extensive hydrogen bonding among the molecules in liquid water produces much larger values for properties such as viscosity, surface tension, and boiling point than are expected for a typical liquid containing small molecules. For example, based on the size of its molecules, water would be expected to have a boiling point nearly 200 °C (360 °F) lower than its observed boiling point. In contrast to the condensed states (solid and liquid) of water, which exhibit extensive association among the water molecules, its gaseous (vapour) phase contains relatively independent water molecules at large distances from each other.

The polarity of the water molecule plays a major part in the dissolution of ionic compounds during the formation of aqueous solutions. Earth’s oceans contain vast amounts of dissolved salts, which provide a great natural resource. In addition, the hundreds of chemical reactions that occur every instant to keep organisms alive all take place in aqueous fluids. Also, the ability of foods to be flavoured as they are cooked is made possible by the solubility in water of such substances as sugar and salt. Although the solubility of substances in water is an extremely complex process, the interaction between the polar water molecules and the solute (i.e., the substance being dissolved) plays a major role. When an ionic solid dissolves in water, the positive ends of the water molecules are attracted to the anions, while their negative ends are attracted to the cations. This process is called hydration. The hydration of its ions tends to cause a salt to break apart (dissolve) in the water. In the dissolving process the strong forces present between the positive and negative ions of the solid are replaced by strong water-ion interactions.

When ionic substances dissolve in water, they break apart into individual cations and anions. For instance, when sodium chloride (NaCl) dissolves in water, the resulting solution contains separated Na+ and Cl− ions.

Generally speaking, the greater the charge density (the ratio of charge to surface area) of an ion, the larger the hydration number will be. As a rule, negative ions have smaller hydration numbers than positive ions because of the greater crowding that occurs when the hydrogen atoms of the water molecules are oriented toward the anion.

Many nonionic compounds are also soluble in water. For example, ethanol (C2H5OH), the alcoholic component of wine, beer, and distilled spirits, is highly soluble in water. These beverages contain varying percentages of ethanol in aqueous solution with other substances. Ethanol is so soluble in water because of the structure of the alcohol molecule. The molecule contains a polar O―H bond like those in water, which allows it to interact effectively with water.


Water has several important physical properties. Although these properties are familiar because of the omnipresence of water, most of the physical properties of water are quite atypical. Given the low molar mass of its constituent molecules, water has unusually large values of viscosity, surface tension, heat of vaporization, and entropy of vaporization, all of which can be ascribed to the extensive hydrogen bonding interactions present in liquid water. The open structure of ice that allows for maximum hydrogen bonding explains why solid water is less dense than liquid water—a highly unusual situation among common substances.