Category Archives: Science

How water is made


To ask ‘How is water made’ is to ask a simple question, yet the answer is quite complex. To answer it, it is necessary to go deep into the forms that surround us, and travel from the reality we all experience and see, into the dynamic world of atoms, sub atomic particles, the Big Bang and electron interaction. An overview of how water is made leads to an interesting conjunction of indigenous views on water and those of the West. This article begins with the scientific view of water.

H2O is an equation even more well known than Einstein’s famous e=mc2. Water is indeed the molecule of life. Water is formed by hydrogen – in fact ‘hydro gen’ means water generator – and Oxygen. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. Hydrogen accounts for 75% of the mass of the universe, helium comes next with 23% and Oxygen is 1%; all up the three elements account for 99%. That also means water is produced by the atomic mixing of two of the three most abundant elements in the universe.

In the very early moments of the universe, there was basically a molten soup consisting of protons (positively charged particles) and neutrons (whose charge is neutral). The heavy elements of helium, lithium and boron were formed out of the clumping together of protons and neutrons under intense heat pressures. Helium4 has two protons and two neutrons, lithium has three protons and three or four neutrons, and boron11 has five protons and six neutrons. These elements do not have electrons, whereas hydrogen does.

Hydrogen was formed when the universe ‘cooled’ to a mere 4000C. At that temperature, protons can catch electrons via electro-weak interaction and from that the dance of electrons occurs. This eventually gives rise to the entire table of elements, but in the meantime and importantly for water, hydrogen is created. Hydrogen has a proton and an electron buzzing like bees around a hive: the orbits are actually probabilities of being in a particular location, or travelling with a specific momentum. Some forms of hydrogen have neutrons and these form isotopes of hydrogen. This applies to many elements: Helium4 is an isotope of helium, for example.

So how about water? At the centre of stars four time massive than our sun, at intense temperatures a small amount of carbon will convert Hydrogen to Helium. But in this process inside stars, something special happens: there is a chain reaction in the Hydrogen to Helium process that results in the Carbon-Nitrogen-Oxygen cycle. Stars repeat this process, which results in creating resources of Carbon, Nitrogen and Oxygen for the star. At really high temperatures, the isotopes Oxygen16 and 17 occur which are two of the forms of Oxygen most seen in nature.

Once Oxygen is in the system is it a matter of time for the collision of particles to occur that creates the molecule that is water. This occurs via the electrical interaction of electrons in the outer orbits of the elements. This might seem strange, but then this process is how the entire table of elements is created. In the case of water, the Oxygen connects to the two Hydrogen atoms, and the remaining two pairs of electrons in the orbit of Oxygen give the molecule the shape of a tetrahedron.

Then it is a matter of transporting the water molecule through space. As the heavy hydrogen component of carbonaceous chondrites matches that of H2O on Earth, it is considered that meteorites of the carbonaceous chondrite type brought water to this planet.

H2O is a very special molecule as it has three forms: solid, liquid and gas. As Phillip Ball (the source of much of the preceding information) pointed out, you can fly a Jumbo aircraft through clouds, but you need an icebreaker ship to pass through ice.

Beyond our planet there are vast fields of ice on Neptune, and most comets are chunks of ice compacted with minerals. On our planet, the fact of the matter is that 71% of the surface of Earth is water. We should perhaps be calling this place Planet Water as that name is closer to the actual state of affairs.

Then within the human body, between 50 and 65% of humans is water. The range is due to the fat content of the body. There is a strong relationship between blood – the main fluid in humans – and the great oceans: they are chemically identical. This explains why in hospitals people are sustained by a saline drip: salt water can be directly fed into the bloodstream. The only difference between sea water and blood is that blood contains red and white corpuscles.

So there you have it: water from the beginning of the universe to the human body. Rather than being some odd exception to a universe set about on other duties, humans are intimately, chemically and atomically part of it. This perhaps explains the importance given to water by indigenous peoples and contrasts, as it happens to the current Western view. The latter is mainly one of thrash (exploit for resources) and trash (dump waste and runoff in it).

This is so predominantly, but not exclusively. For we live in a world where some dairy farmers care about their landscape and use natural methods to ensure the health of water ways. There are consultants in water usage that save millions of litres of water every year, through the wise use of water. Here in Taranaki Aotearoa New Zealand, there is an over supply of water, but through careful use, participation in the abundance of nature is granted. The wise use of water is something that indigenous peoples and Westerners can agree on, as part of the way forward in our relationship with the environment.

The importance of water to indigenous peoples and interconnections to the Western scientific view, is to be the subject of a following article on this subject. Part of the goal of attendance at the SCANZ residency is to further my understanding of indigenous views of water.

The changing Waiwhakaiho mouth

Maps drawn by Jane Richardson
Maps drawn by Jane Richardson

In these current (left) and past maps, the changing course of the river over time has been mapped by fluvial geomorphologist Jane Richardson of Massey University. The palaeovalley refers to the changing drainage patterns of rivers.

The sound of boulders moving down the river, one form of the changing river landscape, was mentioned in an interview with a farmer whose farm was adjacent to the Waiwhakaiho.

A brief history of water in science and art

The history of the study of water in science and art has interesting points of convergence and tells quite a story of the way humans have interacted with water over centuries. While many might regard water as little more than the humble content of every day tea and coffee, the study of water has been central to recent science and the human use of water in machines can be traced over millennia. Rivers have also captured the imagination of artists for centuries. Given it is essential for life it is perhaps no surprise that water holds a central and significant place in the world view of Māori and other indigenous groups.

Without going into too much of the science, the study of turbulence was central to the development of Chaos Theory. Edward Lorenz’s computer model of the weather was a defining point. The onset of turbulence was compellingly studied by Ernst Libchaber, and even dripping taps have been studied in the name of Chaos Theory. Mandelbrot’s ideas about scaling, self-similarity and fractals are important, as the scale change between dripping taps and weather systems indicates.

Some interesting imagery has arisen in the course of the study of flow and turbulence. A Von Karman Vortex Street sounds like an exotic location but is actually imagery from the study of turbulence, where Von Karman led the way. Here is an image below:

A Von Karman vortex street (digitally optimized). Source:
A Von Karman vortex street (digitally optimized). Source:

The images are made by having a small cylinder filled with dye, which has a smaller hole in it, on the side in the direction water is flowing. As the flow rate increases, the line of dye becomes wavy, then spiral like forms branch off. Once the flow is over a certain rate, the street becomes completely turbulent. Karman Vortex Streets on rare occasions can be seen in clouds, showing that there is a general principle of flow being seen.

Many New Zealanders, whether or not Māori will intuitively recognise in the flowing forms above, the painted rafter patterns seen in Whare Nui (Meeting Houses). It turns out that Kowhaiwhai (the name of the technique of the painted rafter patterns) have origins in canoe paddle decoration for which there are early examples from Ngai Tamanuhiri, seen in the image below.

Painted Ngai Tamanuhiri hoe (paddles) collected on 12 October 1769, during Cook's first Pacific voyage, sketched on board the Endeavour by Sydney Parkinson. © British Library Board Add. 23920, f.71
Painted Ngai Tamanuhiri hoe (paddles) collected on 12 October 1769, during Cook’s first Pacific voyage, sketched on board the Endeavour by Sydney Parkinson. © British Library Board Add. 23920, f.71

It is striking that the whorls of flowing forms running up scales from the tiny to the large are found in both the science and the paddle decoration. A sense of flow escalating is also found in art, most notably in the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci.

Ian Clothier (1990). After da Vinci: studies of water passing obstacles and falling into a pool c.1508-9.  Pencil on paper.
Ian Clothier (1990). After da Vinci: studies of water passing obstacles and falling into a pool c.1508-9. Pencil on paper.

Da Vinci was famous for among many other things likening the motion of the surface of water to hair. He used also used his studies of water to generate the grand fictions known as the Deluge Drawings, which capture the intensity of the artists view of water and nature.

Ian Clothier (1990). After da Vinci: Deluge over a rocky landscape c.1513-15. Pencil on paper.
Ian Clothier (1990). After da Vinci: Deluge over a rocky landscape c.1513-15. Pencil on paper.

Da Vinci was of course known for many things: scientist, engineer, sculptor, painter, armourer and his engagement with the technology of the day was notable. Water itself holds an interesting place in the development of technology, because the origins of the computer are traceable back through calculators to automata, then through to weaving looms and back further to water clocks. These reached a zenith of sorts around the 12th century Muslim Turkey. Al Jazari lived in the Islamic golden era, and is credited with bringing mechanics into engineering and combining these with a sense of beauty. The efficient and beautiful use of water are hallmarks of his work.

More recently, UK artist Susan Derges has blended art and science by submerging large photographic plates in estuarine waters and using a flash to take an image of the swirls and eddies created by sand moving in turbulent suspension.

And even more recently that that, the subject of water, flow, turbulence and Māori world view have been integrated by Māori New Zealander Jo Tito, whose work was included in the curated exhibition Wai in Albuquerque in 2012.

Jo Tito (2012) Wai. Photograph.
Jo Tito (2012) Wai. Photograph.

Taranaki – hydro power pioneer

The original Mangorei power station much of which is still in use today. Image sourced from: Puke Ariki Learning and Research archives.
The original Mangorei power station much of which is still in use today. Image sourced from: Puke Ariki Learning and Research archives.

New Zealand has an early history of drawing on hydro power to produce electricity. The Taranaki district in particular, has been a pioneer in the use of hydro-powered electricity, establishing 7 of New Zealand’s 14 public sources of electricity in the early times.

Taranaki takes the prize as the most electrically-minded province during the early years of power generation in New Zealand. Neil Rennie writing in 1989 from Power to the People [see note 1 below].

Taranaki’s early sources of electricity stemmed from hydroelectric schemes that drew from the water supplies and many streams that surround Mt Taranaki/Egmont. Demand for a public source of electricity began to increase as New Plymouth’s urban population grew. Additionally, local farmers, who were originally self reliant on their self generated sources of electricity, began to use more industrialised technologies. These technologies required a steady supply of electricity. Consequently the new farming methods provided a practical and economic justification for the establishment public power schemes.

In the beginning of the 20th century Mangorei Power station was established on the Waiwhakaiho River near Burgess Park. In its early stages Mangorei power station was constructed to be a combined water and electricity supply. It provided power to 41 homes as well as New Plymouth’s street lights in urban areas. During this era of its development the Mangorei power station required a mere 1200-metre water supply that was then piped directly from the Waiwhakaiho River to its neighbouring generating station.

In the summer time power was often unreliable as the water levels along the Waiwhakaiho would run low. In response to this dilemma local government commissioned the construction of a dam along the Māngamāhoe Stream in 1914. Consequently a new intake was also constructed further up the Waiwhakaiho River and a 420-metre open water race led to the dam [2]. Unfortunately this extension on the Mangorei Power Station was not as efficient as its original design; the Māngamāhoe Stream intake frequently became blocked by stones, boulders and other debris which required removal by hand. The development of this system however has left a historical mark in Taranaki as the piles of boulders that were removed by local residents by hand from the stream, have remained alongside the intake.

In 1971 the original low-head dam that accompanied this structure was rebuilt and replaced by another low-head dam several meters downstream. The remains of the first dam and its intake to the power station may still be seen a few metres up from the second dam [3].

From its humble beginnings in 1906 the Mangorei Power Station continues to be one of New Zealand’s oldest operating power stations. Although it has much evolved from its original from its evidence of its earlier structures can still be traced as it remains a central component of Taranaki’s and New Zealand’s industrial heritage [4].

[1]. Lambert, R. (n.d). The Alchemy of the Engineer: Taranaki Hydro-electricity, paragraph 1. Retrieved from:

[2]. As above, paragraph 8.

[3]. As above, paragraph 8.

[4]. As above.