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  • 2018-07-02 11:05:52
  • Article ID: 696928

SLAC's Ultra-High-Speed 'Electron Camera' Catches Molecules at a Crossroads

To break, or not to break: An unprecedented atomic movie captures the moment when molecules decide how to respond to light.

  • Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

    Energy landscapes of a molecule during a light-driven chemical reaction.

  • Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

    Animation of a trifluoroiodomethane molecule (carbon shown in black, fluoride in cyan, iodine in magenta) responding to laser light. The light flash stretches the bond between the carbon and iodine atoms to a point, where the bond can either break (at right) or stay intact (at left). Since molecules are quantum systems, they actually exist in both states at once.

  • Credit: Greg Stewart/SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

    Illustration of the laser-driven response of trifluoroiodomethane molecules (balls and sticks). A laser flash elevates the molecule from a low-energy ground state to an excited state of higher energy (at left). The molecular states are shown as energy landscapes, on which the molecule can follow reaction paths (arrows). At a point where two excited states intersect (conical intersection), the reaction can take two routes: the molecule can either break apart (dissociation) or stay intact and vibrate (vibration).

Menlo Park, Calif. — An extremely fast “electron camera” at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory has produced the most detailed atomic movie of the decisive point where molecules hit by light can either stay intact or break apart. The results could lead to a better understanding of how molecules respond to light in processes that are crucial for life, like photosynthesis and vision, or that are potentially harmful, such as DNA damage from ultraviolet light.

In the study, published today in Science, researchers looked at a gas whose molecules have five atoms each. They watched in real time how light stretched the bond between two atoms in the molecules to a “point of no return,” sending the molecules on a path that either further separated the atoms and cleaved the bond or caused the atoms to vibrate while preserving the bond. 

“The starting and end points of a chemical reaction are often obvious, but it’s much more challenging to take snapshots of the rapid reaction steps in between,” said postdoctoral researcher Jie Yang, the study’s lead author from SLAC’s Accelerator Directorate and the Stanford PULSE Institute. “The crossroads where a molecule can do one thing or another are an important factor in determining the outcome of a reaction. Now we’ve been able to observe directly for the first time how the atomic nuclei of a molecule rearrange at such an intersection.”

Co-author Todd Martinez, a professor at SLAC and Stanford University and an investigator at PULSE, said, “The system we studied is a paradigm for the much more complex light-driven reactions in nature.” For example, the absorption of ultraviolet light can cause damage to DNA, but other mechanisms turn the light’s energy into molecular vibrations and minimize the harmful effect.

Ultra-High-Speed Snapshots of Atoms in Motion

The first steps in light-driven reactions are extremely fast. Molecules absorb light almost instantaneously, leading to a rapid rearrangement of their electrons and atomic nuclei. To see what happens in real time, researchers need ultra-high-speed cameras that can “freeze” motions occurring within femtoseconds, or millionths of a billionth of a second.

The camera used in the study was an instrument for ultrafast electron diffraction (UED), in which a high-energy beam of electrons probes the interior of a sample, generating snapshots of its atomic architecture at different points in time during a chemical reaction. Strung together, these snapshots turn into a movie of the speedy atomic motions. 

At SLAC, the researchers flashed laser light into a gas of trifluoroiodomethane molecules and observed over the course of hundreds of femtoseconds how bonds between carbon and iodine atoms elongated to a point at which the bond either broke, splitting off iodine from the molecules, or contracted, setting off vibrations of the atoms along the bond.

“UED was absolutely crucial to seeing that point during the reaction,” said physicist Xijie Wang, head of SLAC’s UED program and the study’s principal investigator. “Other methods either don’t detect nuclear motions directly or haven’t reached the resolution necessary to make this kind of observation in gases.”

Mapping Energy Landscapes of Chemical Reactions

The observation is in agreement with calculations that provide a deeper understanding of what happens during the reaction.

The laser light “energizes” the molecules, elevating them from a low-energy ground state to a higher-energy excited state (see image below). Molecular states like these can be described by energy landscapes, with mountains of more energy and valleys of less energy. Like a golf ball rolling on a curved putting green, the molecules can follow reaction paths on these surfaces.

When the landscapes of different molecular states intersect, the reaction can proceed in several directions. Chemists call this point a conical intersection.

In fact, molecules at conical intersections exist in several states at once – an oddity rooted in the fact that molecules are tiny quantum systems, said co-author Xiaolei Zhu, a postdoctoral researcher at PULSE and Stanford. “We can predict this behavior in computer simulations,” he said. “Now we’ve also directly seen that the molecules behave exactly that way in the experiment.”

The team is now planning the next steps. “We’re continuing to develop the UED method so that we can look at similar processes in liquids,” Wang said. “This will bring us even closer to understanding light-driven chemical reactions in biological environments.”

In addition to SLAC and Stanford, the research team included scientists from the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science at the German research center DESY; Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter in Germany; University of York in the United Kingdom; University of Potsdam in Germany; and University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Large parts of this project were funded by the DOE Office of Science .    

SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, California, SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science. To learn more, please visit www.slac.stanford.edu.

The Stanford PULSE Institute is a joint institute of SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and Stanford University. PULSE seeks to advance the frontiers of ultrafast science, with particular emphasis on research using SLAC's Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS). For more information, please visit http://www.stanford.edu/group/pulse_institute.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.

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Relax, Just Break It

Argonne scientists and their collaborators are helping to answer long-held questions about a technologically important class of materials called relaxor ferroelectrics.

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Exploding Waves from Colliding Dissipative Pulses

The interaction of traveling waves in dissipative systems, physical systems driven by energy dissipation, can yield unexpected and sometimes chaotic results. These waves, known as dissipative pulses are driving experimental studies in a variety of areas that involve matter and energy flows. In the journal Chaos, researchers discuss their work studying collisions between three types of DSs to determine what happens when these traveling waves interact.


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Professor Miao Yu Named the Priti and Mukesh Chatter '82 Career Development Professor

Miao Yu, associate professor in the Howard P. Isermann Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, has been named the Priti and Mukesh Chatter Career Development Professor. His research focuses on developing advanced nanomaterials for energy and environmental applications.

Funding for New DOE Energy Frontier Research Center at Brookhaven Lab

UPTON, NY--The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has announced funding for a new Energy Frontier Research Center (EFRC) to be led by DOE's Brookhaven National Laboratory. The Brookhaven EFRC, named "Molten Salts in Extreme Environments," will focus on understanding the properties of a class of materials with potential applications in energy technologies--particularly in nuclear power.

Two Stony Brook Researchers Receive Energy Frontier Research Center Awards Totaling $21.75M

Stony Brook University received notification from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that two proposals directed by SBU faculty to expand or develop Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) designed to accelerate scientific breakthroughs needed to strengthen U.S. economic leadership and energy security will receive funding totaling $21.75 million. The two Stony Brook EFRCs are the Center for Mesoscale Transport Properties (m2M), led by renowned energy storage researcher, Esther Takeuchi, PhD, which will receive a four-year $12 million grant for the existing center; and the creation of a new EFRC, A Next Generation Synthesis Center (GENESIS) led by John Parise, PhD, which will receive a four-year $9.75 million grant.

Seth Davidovits Wins 2018 Marshall N. Rosenbluth Dissertation Award

Article describes dissertation award won by Seth Davidovits.

DOE Launches New Lab Partnering Service

The U.S. Department of Energy officially launched the Lab Partnering Service (LPS), an on-line, single access point platform for investors, innovators, and institutions to identify, locate, and obtain information from DOE's 17 national laboratories.

Department of Energy Announces $75 Million for High Energy Physics Research

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) announced $75 million in funding for 77 university research awards on a range of topics in high energy physics to advance knowledge of how the universe works at its most fundamental level.

Thesis Prize Winner's Calculations Characterize Neutrino Interactions

Alessandro Baroni is helping demystify one of the most mysterious particles. His work is contributing to our understanding of neutrinos, and it has earned him the 2017 Jefferson Science Associates Thesis Prize for work performed on a thesis related to research at the Department of Energy's Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility

10 Questions for Steven Cowley, New Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory

Steven Cowley, a theoretical physicist and international authority on fusion energy, became the seventh Director of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPon July 1 and will be Princeton professor of astrophysical sciences on September 1.

Ames Laboratory to lead new Center for Advancement of Topological Semimetals

Ames Laboratory will receive $10.75 million over four yearrs for a new Center for Advancement of Topological Semimetals as one of the Department of Energy's Energy Frontier Research Centers.

DOE Awards $100 Million for Energy Frontier Research Centers

U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry announced $100 million in funding for 42 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) to accelerate the scientific breakthroughs needed to strengthen U.S. economic leadership and energy security.


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Steering Light with Dynamic Lens-on-MEMS

Scientists add active control to design capabilities for new lightweight flat optical devices.

Sugar-Coated Sheets Selectively Target Pathogens

Researchers design self-assembling nanosheets that mimic the surface of cells.

Tracking Down Helium-4's Quarks and Gluons

Scientists obtain the first exclusive measurement of deeply virtual Compton scattering of electrons off helium-4, vital to obtaining an unambiguous 3-D view of quarks and gluons within nuclei.

Predicting Magnetic Explosions: From Plasma Current Sheet Disruption to Fast Magnetic Reconnection

Supercomputer simulations and theoretical analysis shed new light on when and how fast reconnection occurs.

Is Nature Exclusively Left Handed? Using Chilled Atoms to Find Out

Elegant techniques of trapping and polarizing atoms open vistas for beta-decay tests of fundamental symmetries, key to understanding the most basic forces and particles constituting our universe.

As Future Batteries, Hybrid Supercapacitors Are Super-Charged

A new supercapacitor could be a competitive alternative to lithium-ion batteries.

Forever Young Catalyst Reduces Diesel Emissions

Atom probe tomography reveals key explanations for stable performance over a cutting-edge diesel-exhaust catalyst's lifetime.

Sense Like a Shark: Saltwater-Submersible Films

A nickelate thin film senses electric field changes analogous to the electroreception sensing organ in sharks, which detects the bioelectric fields of prey.

A Bit of Quantum Logic--What Did the Atom Say to the Quantum Dot?

Let's talk! Scientists demonstrate coherent coupling between a quantum dot and a donor atom in silicon, vital for moving information inside quantum computers.

New Tech Uses Isomeric Beams to Study How and Where the Galaxy Makes One of Its Most Common Elements

A new measurement using a beam of aluminum-26 prepared in a metastable state allows researchers to better understand the creation of the elements in our galaxy.


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