Many of the physical and chemical properties of water are due to its structure. The atoms in the water molecule are arranged with the two HO bonds at an angle of about 105° rather than on directly opposite sides of the oxygen atom. The asymmetrical shape of the molecule arises from a tendency of the four electron pairs in the valence shell of oxygen to arrange themselves symmetrically at the vertices of a tetrahedron around the oxygen nucleus. The two pairs associated with covalent bonds (see chemical bond) holding the hydrogen atoms are drawn together slightly, resulting in the angle of 105° between these bonds. This arrangement results in a polar molecule, since there is a net negative charge toward the oxygen end (the apex) of the V-shaped molecule and a net positive charge at the hydrogen end. The electric dipole gives rise to attractions between neighboring opposite ends of water molecules, with each oxygen being able to attract two nearby hydrogen atoms of two other water molecules. Such hydrogen bonding, as it is called, has also been observed in other hydrogen compounds. Although considerably weaker than the covalent bonds holding the water molecule together, hydrogen bonding is strong enough to keep water liquid at ordinary temperatures; its low molecular weight would normally tend to make it a gas at such temperatures.
Various other properties of water, such as its high specific heat, are due to these hydrogen bonds. As the temperature of water is lowered, clusters of molecules form through hydrogen bonding, with each molecule being linked to others by up to four hydrogen bonds, each oxygen atom tending to surround itself with four hydrogen atoms in a tetrahedral arrangement. Hexagonal rings of oxygen atoms are formed in this way, with alternate atoms in either a higher or lower plane than their neighbors to create a kinked three-dimensional structure.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.