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Ultrafast lasers give CU-Boulder researchers a snapshot of electrons in action
Date:10/30/2008

In the quest to slow down and ultimately understand chemistry at the level of atoms and electrons, University of Colorado at Boulder and Canadian scientists have found a new way to peer into a molecule that allows them to see how its electrons rearrange as the molecule changes shape.

Understanding how electrons rearrange during chemical reactions could lead to breakthroughs in materials research and in fields like catalysis and alternative energy, according to CU-Boulder physics professors and JILA fellows Margaret Murnane and Henry Kapteyn, who led the research efforts with scientist Albert Stolow of the Canadian National Research Council's Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences.

"The Holy Grail in molecular sciences would be to be able to look at all aspects of a chemical reaction and to see how atoms are moving and how electrons are rearranging themselves as this happens," Murnane said. "We're not there yet, but this is a big step toward that goal."

To be able to chart a chemical reaction, scientists need to be able to see how bonds are formed or broken between atoms in a molecule during chemical reactions. But only extremely limited tools are available to view the rapidly changing electron cloud that surrounds a molecule as the atoms move around, Murnane said. Changes in the electron cloud can happen on timescales of less than a femtosecond, or one quadrillionth of a second, representing some of the fastest processes in the natural world.

In a paper to appear in the Oct. 30 issue of Science Express, the online version of the journal Science, the CU team describes how they shot a molecule of dinitrogen tetraoxide, or N2O4, with a short burst of laser light to induce very large oscillations within the molecule. They then used a second laser to produce an X-ray, which was used to map the electron energy levels of the molecule, and most importantly, to understand how these electron energy levels rearrange as the mole
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Contact: Margaret Murnane
margaret.murnane@colorado.edu
303-492-7839
University of Colorado at Boulder
Source:Eurekalert

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