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A team of physicists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Stanford University and Europe has captured the clearest glimpse yet of a photochemical reaction

A team of physicists from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Stanford University and Europe has captured the clearest glimpse yet of a photochemical reaction — the type of light-fueled molecular transformations responsible for photosynthesis, vision and the ozone layer.

The researchers precisely recorded how the atomic nuclei and chemical bonds of a five-atom molecule responded when being struck by a laser. Appearing in the June 6 edition of the journal Science, the team’s study marks the culmination of a years-long effort to advance the quality of “molecular movies” from that of a rudimentary stop-motion animation to a high-definition motion picture.

Stanford Slac Rendering

Source: Stanford/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“People have been modeling these things for a long time, but there was really no good way to test if these models were correct,” said Nebraska’s Martin Centurion, Susan J. Rosowski Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy. “There is now a way to compare, in detail, what is happening experimentally with what our models would predict.

“The reason that’s very important is because there are many, many different molecules, and you can excite them with many, many different wavelengths (of light). There’s no way you could ever do experiments on everything, so at some point, you need some sort of model that’s reliable.”

Centurion

Though refining those models will demand years of work and many studies, Centurion said, the Science study has established a new benchmark for using experimental data to better understand photochemical reactions on the atomic scale.

That comprehension could eventually yield important applications, he said, whether in the form of solar cells that can store the energy they collect or custom molecules better at catalyzing the reactions that can produce renewable fuels.

The Science study was authored by 21 researchers, including Centurion and doctoral advisee Kyle Wilkin; members of Stanford’s SLAC laboratory led by Jie Yang, a former doctoral advisee of Centurion’s; and researchers from the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron, Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter, University of York and Potsdam University.

The team received support from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Basic Energy Sciences and the National Science Foundation.

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