Chemical bonds being created at the subatomic level have been observed by scientists for the first time in history. Using an X-ray laser apparatus at the Department of Energy’s Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) National Accelerator Laboratory, scientists peered into the near-quantum level of creation and had their first glimpse of the conversion regarding the process when two atoms create a weak bond towards their last step of transforming into a stable molecule. This observation provided the comprehension need to understand how chemical reactions, at the subatomic level, occur, leading to the possibility of efforts being undertaken to artificially create them in a lab to produce energy.
Professor Ander Nilsson, of the Stanford/SLAC SUNCAT Center at Stockholm University, who led the research team, explained the process is the very essence of all chemistry, considered the Holy Grail of chemical reactions. He went on to say, since a minute number of molecules are present in the state of transition at any time, scientists believe it would never be observed.
Nilsson’s research team studied the same chemical reaction which encompasses the process of car exhaust, the neutralization of carbon monoxide (CO) completed by the catalytic converter. Though, in this case, the chemical reaction happened on the surface of the catalyst that held oxygen atoms in their atomic bond. Thereafter, the reaction allowed the oxygen and carbon atoms to fuse and create a carbon dioxide molecule. The laser fired the catalyst up to an unbelievable of near 2,000 kelvins, or 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the melting point of many heavy metals, increasing the likelihood the atoms would create a chemical connection.
The utilization of X-ray laser waves from the Linac Coherent Light Source of SLAC, allowed Nilsson’s scientifically-minded team to detect and record the minute process by sensing variations in the arrangement of the electrons circling around the atoms at the quantum-level, with a time of a few quadrillionths of a second. First, the process stimulates the oxygen atoms, pushing the activation of the carbon monoxide molecules, said Nilsson. Subsequently, the atoms begin to vibrate, moving around furiously. A trillionth of a second later, the atoms collide and engage in the transition states, he further explained.
The researchers were astonished to observe that nearly all the reactants engaged in a transition state, though, just a small group created a stable carbon dioxide molecule without being destroyed. Nilsson’s research team is now working to analyze and measure the transition processes in many different catalytic reactions that could lead to the manufacturing of useable chemicals for energy applications.
Earlier this month, the findings from this revolutionary study were published in the journal Science Express. Jens Nørskov, co-author of the study and SUNCAT Director, explained the study is unbelievably important. He said it provides much-needed insight into the atomic level rules that could allow scientists to create a strategy to design catalysis. Considering the scientists now have the technological ability to view atomic and subatomic level transition states, they believe further advances in their methods will allow them to deduce the exact chain of events leading to the transition states, leading to the future manufacturing of useful catalysts.
By: Alex Lemieux
Picture: Wellcome Images – License