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Ghostly molecules lead to scientific advancements at UC Berkeley

Chemists at University of California, Berkeley have been surprised recently as their new technique for taking snapshots of molecules with atomic precision showed up chemicals that shouldn’t be visible. Due to reactions taking place often within a trillionth of a second, the steps in these reactions are expected to happen much too quickly for scientists to observe.

However, in the process of taking snapshots of two molecules reacting on the surface of a catalyst, the team at UC Berkeley managed to find intermediate structures lasting for the time required to take the photo. Usually, only lasers firing in femtosecond bursts (every one quadrillionth of a second) can capture the molecular structures which form when a chemical reaction is taking place.

The visibility of these “ghostly molecules” means that there are new possibilities for chemists to make their reactions faster or more efficient. It could also lead to the building of new molecules which have never been seen before. These developments could impact many fields of the science world, especially if chemists can use them to improve catalytic reactions.

Attempts are currently being made at UC Berkeley to do just this. An Assistant Professor in their Department of Chemistry, Felix Fischer, has used this newfound knowledge to make a molecule that has long been predicted but was never able to be realised until now. He has also begun the process of building a toolbox to help design or improve catalytic reactions which are integral to the chemical industry.

Fischer cites this kind of progress as an advancement for scientists, saying, “This is an example of why it is important to understand what is happening on these surfaces, and how you can use this understanding to access structures and reactivities that are not accessible with the standard tools we have right now.”

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Other co-authors of the Nature Chemistry paper are Alexander Riss, Sebastian Wickenburg, Hsin-Zon Tsai, Aaron Bradley, Miguel Ugeda, Han Sae Jung and Patrick Gorman of UC Berkeley, Alejandro Pérez Paz of the Universidad del País Vasco in Spain and Dimas G. De Oteyza of the Donostia International Physics Center in San Sebastián, Spain.

The work was funded by the Department of Energy, Office of Naval Research, European Research Council and Grupos Consolidados UPV/EHU del Gobierno Vasco.


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