Our ability to see is based on molecules in the eye that flip from one conformation to another when exposed to visible light. Now, a new technique for attaching light-sensitive organic molecules to metal surfaces allows the molecules to be switched between two different configurations in response to exposure to different wavelengths of light. Because the configuration changes are reversible and can be controlled without direct contact, this technique could enable applications that can be controlled at the molecular scale.
The technology has been suggested as a possible basis for molecular motors, artificial muscles, and molecular electronics. The research results, obtained by a team led by Paul S. Weiss, distinguished professor of chemistry and physics at Penn State University and James M. Tour, Chao professor of chemistry at Rice University, are reported in the June 2008 issue of the journal Nano Letters.
Until now, progress was impeded because, when such molecules were attached to surfaces, they no longer could be switched back and forth, as they could be when they were in solution. The new technique uses a change in the shape of an azobenzene molecule in response to light to provide two different states. The azobenzene molecule consists of a bridge of two nitrogen atoms attached to one another by a double bond, with each nitrogen atom also bound to a benzene ring. The two benzene rings can be on the same side of the molecule (cis configuration) or on opposite sides (trans configuration). When the molecule absorbs energy, in the form of light, it can change between cis and trans configurations in a process called photoisomerization. "This mechanism is essentially the same that we use in our eyes for vision," said Weiss. "The molecule responds to light by making a change that can be harnessed. In the eye, the change causes a neural impulse."
The photoisomerization of azobenzene is understood well in solution, b
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