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Posted: Mar 06, 2006
Scientists capture the speediest ever motion in a molecule
(Nanowerk News) The fastest ever observations of protons moving within a molecule open a new window on fundamental processes in chemistry and biology.
Their capturing of the movements of the lightest and therefore speediest components of a molecule will allow scientists to study molecular behaviour previously too fast to be detected. It gives a new in-depth understanding of how molecules behave in chemical processes, providing opportunities for greater study and control of molecules, including the organic molecules that are the building blocks of life.
The high speed at which protons can travel during chemical
reactions means their motion needs to be measured in units of time
called 'attoseconds', with one attosecond equating to one
billion-billionth of a second. The team's observation of proton
motion with an accuracy of 100 attoseconds in hydrogen and methane
molecules is the fastest ever recorded. Dr John Tisch of Imperial College London says:
"Slicing up a second into intervals as miniscule as 100
attoseconds, as our new technique enables us to do, is extremely
hard to conceptualise. It's like chopping up the 630 million
kilometres from here to Jupiter into pieces as wide as a human
Professor Jon Marangos, Director of the Blackett Laboratory
Laser Consortium at Imperial, says this new technique means
scientists will now be able to measure and control the ultra-fast
dynamics of molecules. He says:
"Control of this kind underpins an array of future technologies,
such as control of chemical reactions, quantum computing and high
brightness x-ray light sources for material processing. We now have
a much clearer insight into what is happening within molecules and
this allows us to carry out more stringent testing of theories of
molecular structure and motion. This is likely to lead to improved
methods of molecular synthesis and the nano-fabrication of a new
generation of materials."
Lead author Dr Sarah Baker of Imperial College believes that the
technique is also exciting because of its experimental simplicity.
"We are very excited by these results, not only because we have
'watched' motion occurring faster than was previously possible, but
because we have achieved this using a compact and simple technique
that will make such study accessible to scientists around the
To make this breakthrough, scientists used a specially built
laser system capable of producing extremely brief pulses of light.
This pulsed light has an oscillating electrical field that exerts a
powerful force on the electrons surrounding the protons, repeatedly
tearing them from the molecule and driving them back into it.
This process causes the electrons to carry a large amount of
energy, which they release as an x-ray photon before returning to
their original state. How bright this x-ray is depends on how far
the protons move in the time between the electrons' removal and
return. The further the proton moves, the lower the intensity of
the x-ray, allowing the team to measure how far a proton has moved
during the electron oscillation period.