Resolving the Structural Debate for the Hydrated Excess Proton in Water

PB Calio and CH Li and GA Voth, JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN CHEMICAL SOCIETY, 143, 18672-18683 (2021).

DOI: 10.1021/jacs.1c08552

It has long been proposed that the hydrated excess proton in water (aka the solvated "hydronium" cation) likely has two limiting forms, that of the Eigen cation (H9O4+) and that of the Zundel cation (H5O2 (+)). There has been debate over which of these two is the more dominant species and/or whether intermediate (or "distorted") structures between these two limits are the more realistic representation. Spectroscopy experiments have recently provided further results regarding the excess proton. These experiments show that the hydrated proton has an anisotropy reorientation time scale on the order of 1-2 ps. This time scale has been suggested to possibly contradict the picture of the more rapid "special pair dance" phenomenon for the hydrated excess proton, which is a signature of a distorted Eigen cation. The special pair dance was predicted from prior computational studies in which the hydrated central core hydronium structure continually switches (O-H center dot center dot center dot O)* special pair hydrogen-bond partners with the closest three water molecules, yielding on average a distorted Eigen cation with three equivalent and dynamically exchanging distortions. Through state-of-art simulations it is shown here that anisotropy reorientation time scales of the same magnitude are obtained that also include structural reorientations associated with the special pair dance, leading to a reinterpretation of the experimental results. These results and additional analyses point to a distorted and dynamic Eigen cation as the most prevalent hydrated proton species in aqueous acid solutions of dilute to moderate concentration, as opposed to a stabilized or a distorted (but not "dancing") Zundel cation.

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