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Seeing the quantum in chemistry: JILA scientists control chemical reactions of ultracold molecules

be controlled with electric fields. By measuring how many molecules are lost over time from a gas confined inside a laser-based optical trap, at different temperatures and under various other conditions, the JILA team found evidence of heat-producing chemical reactions in which the molecules must have exchanged atoms, broken chemical bonds, and forged new bonds. Theoretical calculations of long-range quantum effects agree with the experimental observations.

In conventional chemistry at room temperature, molecules may collide and react to form different compounds, releasing heat. In JILA's ultracold experiments, quantum mechanics reigns and the molecules spread out as ethereal rippling waves instead of acting as barbell-like solid particles. They do not collide in the conventional sense. Rather, as their quantum mechanical wave properties overlap, the molecules sense each other from as much as 100 times farther apart than would be expected under ordinary conditions. At this distance the molecules either scatter from one another or, if quantum conditions are right, swap atoms. Scientists expect to be able to control long-range interactions by creating molecules with specific internal states and "tuning" their reaction energies with electric and magnetic fields.

The JILA team produced a highly dense molecular gas and found that, although molecules move slowly at ultralow temperatures, reactions can occur very quickly. However, reactions can be suppressed using quantum mechanics. For instance, a cloud of molecules in the lowest-energy electronic, vibrational and rotational states reacts differently if the nuclear spins of some molecules are flipped. If a cloud of molecules is divided 50/50 into two different nuclear spin states, reactions proceed 10 to 100 times faster than if all molecules possess the same spin state. Thus, by purifying the gas (by preparing all molecules in the same spin state), scientists can deliberately suppress reactions.'/>"/>

Contact: Laura Ost
National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

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Seeing the quantum in chemistry: JILA scientists control chemical reactions of ultracold molecules
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