Do water's electrons care about electrolytes?
Ions have a profound effect on the geometrical structure of liquid water and an aqueous environment is known to change the electronic structure of ions. Here we combine photoelectron spectroscopy measurements from liquid microjets with molecular dynamical and quantum chemical calculations to address the reverse question, to what extent do ions affect the electronic structure of liquid water? We study aqueous solutions of sodium iodide (NaI) over a wide concentration range, from nearly pure water to 8 M solutions, recording spectra in the 5 to 60 eV binding energy range to include all water valence and the solute Na+ 2p, I− 4d, and I− 5p orbital ionization peaks. We observe that the electron binding energies of the solute ions change only slightly as a function of electrolyte concentration, less than 150 ± 60 meV over an ∼8 M range. Furthermore, the photoelectron spectrum of liquid water is surprisingly mildly affected as we transform the sample from a dilute aqueous salt solution to a viscous, crystalline-like phase. The most noticeable spectral changes are a negative binding energy shift of the water 1b2 ionizing transition (up to −370 ± 60 meV) and a narrowing of the flat-top shape water 3a1 ionization feature (up to 450 ± 90 meV). A novel computationally efficient technique is introduced to calculate liquid-state photoemission spectra using small clusters from molecular dynamics (MD) simulations embedded in dielectric continuum. This theoretical treatment captured the characteristic positions and structures of the aqueous photoemission peaks, reproducing the experimentally observed narrowing of the water 3a1 feature and weak sensitivity of the water binding energies to electrolyte concentration. The calculations allowed us to attribute the small binding energy shifts to ion-induced disruptions of intermolecular electronic interactions. Furthermore, they demonstrate the importance of considering concentration-dependent screening lengths for a correct description of the electronic structure of solvated systems. Accounting for electronic screening, the calculations highlight the minimal effect of electrolyte concentration on the 1b1 binding energy reference, in accord with the experiments. This leads us to a key finding that the isolated, lowest-binding-energy, 1b1, photoemission feature of liquid water is a robust energetic reference for aqueous liquid microjet photoemission studies.