A new form of ice has just been created in a lab. It consists of frozen water molecules spun into a tiny, intricate, empty cage. Learn how to make ice XVI, and why it might affect how we get our energy.

The scientists at University of Göttingen and the Institut Laue Langevin didn't have to piece together ice XVI, an intricate new form of ice, atom by atom. The structure already existed. The trouble was that structure was wrapped around other atoms in a configuration too fragile to be untangled. The water, combined with its various atoms, formed a clathrate. A clathrate is simply a lattice or crystal structure. A clathrate hydrate is such a structure formed by water. Its "guest molecules" could be anything, from methane to carbon dioxide. Try to take them away, and study the lattice by itself, and the clathrate collapses.

To part the clathrate hydrate and its guests, scientists went low-tech. They used a simple vacuum pump, coupled with very low temperatures. Their inspired move was their choice of guest molecules. Neon atoms are comparatively small and footloose. When exposed to a vacuum, they can slowly be drawn out of the cage without damaging its structure. What's left is a water clathrate without a guest, or ice XVI.

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What good is this new form of ice? That depends. Researchers can use it to study the fine points of clathrate hydrate structure. This may help them when it comes to natural gas, which often comes packaged together with clathrates. These ice structures can force pipelines to run slow and make the extraction of energy inefficient.

The research might also allow us to pull a switcheroo when it comes to harvesting gas from the ocean floor. According to the researchers, "It is important to note that clathrates could also be formed with carbon dioxide gas which would create stable compounds on the ocean floor. This means there is a possibility we could extract methane and convert it to useful energy, and replace it with the CO2. In other words, we could pump CO2 down to the ocean floor as a replacement for the methane in the gas hydrates. The challenges involved would naturally be large and the feasibility has been called into question, but it remains an extremely intriguing possibility worth exploring."

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Is this a good thing? You decide.

Top Image: J.L Baudet

Molecule Image: Nature and Falenty et al

[Via Formation and Properties of Ice XVI.]