"We are overwhelmed by the interest throughout Europe"
The interdisciplinary Centre for Molecular Water Science (CMWS) aims to advance research into the world's most unusual liquid.
DESY is planning a center that will focus on research into water. What is the motivation behind it?
Helmut Dosch: Water is indispensable for life on earth. It plays an essential role in the environment, biology and medicine. But it is also essential for technology: Many catalytic processes take place in an aqueous environment, and the damage caused by corrosion every year is enormous, so we would do well to understand water as precisely as possible. To do this, we need to study its behavior at the molecular level. This is the only way to fathom its peculiarities, such as the anomaly that it has its highest density at four degrees Celsius. For such studies, we at DESY operate the appropriate research tools; state-of-the-art X-ray sources that can, for example, make the extremely fast movements of water molecules visible as a snapshot. That's why we are now tackling this topic.
How did the idea develop in the first place?
Helmut Dosch: At DESY, we have experts who have been working on the topic for a long time. But other experts were also involved from the very beginning, above all the physicist Anders Nilsson from Stockholm. Then we launched a test balloon: We wrote to all kinds of people in Europe and invited them to a brainstorming workshop in Hamburg to see how much interest there was in the science. The response was enormous, we were overwhelmed. In the meantime, this has developed into an impressive European initiative: To date, more than 40 institutions have declared their intention to get involved with the Centre for Molecular Water Science (CMWS), including financially. The time seems ripe for a water center.
What relevance does the CMWS have for the economy and society?
Helmut Dosch: It is primarily about basic research, about finding answers to fundamental questions. But if we find these answers, it could be important for many application-oriented areas. Think of combating corrosion or catalytic reactions in aqueous environments. If you can get a better handle on those, it means huge economic benefits. Environmental aspects are also important, for example, in drinking water. Specific molecular filters are needed to remove residues of medicines and hormones from the water. Another important aspect that has now gained enormous importance is the detailed molecular understanding of viral and bacterial events in aqueous environments; this affects humans and the environment. The CMWS could also lay important foundations for this.
What is the next step for the water center?
Helmut Dosch: There is a policy paper describing how exactly we want to advance molecular water research, and there is enormous interest at national and international level. The first pilot projects have already begun. We are very optimistic that the center will arrive in the near future.