The Advances in Quantum Mechanical Control of Chemical Reactions

In a groundbreaking development, researchers have successfully manipulated a molecule using extreme-ultraviolet light sources, resulting in dissociation while monitoring the process over time. This significant achievement marks a pivotal step towards achieving precise quantum mechanical control of chemical reactions, potentially unlocking new reaction channels previously unexplored. The interaction between light and matter, particularly molecules, is instrumental in various natural phenomena, including photosynthesis and solar cell technologies. While light in the visible, ultraviolet, or infrared range primarily affects these processes on Earth’s surface, extreme-ultraviolet (XUV) light, consisting of higher energy levels, cannot reach the surface as it is absorbed by the atmosphere. However, XUV light can be artificially generated and employed in laboratories to selectively excite electrons within molecules, paving the way for novel chemical reaction processes that do not occur naturally.

A collaborative effort led by PD Dr. Christian Ott and Prof. Pfeifer at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kernphysik in Heidelberg, Germany, culminated in the successful integration of two distinct XUV light sources. This breakthrough allowed researchers to temporally observe a quantum mechanical dissociation mechanism in oxygen molecules. The team’s findings have recently been published in the esteemed journal Science Advances. This milestone achievement involved the generation of laser pulses through high harmonic generation (HHG) and the utilization of a free-electron laser (FEL). HHG produces XUV radiation by guiding infrared light through a gas cell and converting it into XUV radiation, a process that garnered the Nobel Prize in Physics this year. Conversely, an FEL employs accelerated electrons to emit XUV light. Both methods yield XUV pulses lasting femtoseconds, which amounts to a millionth of a billionth of a second. The crucial differentiating factor between the two laser pulses lies in their spectra. Magunia, the study’s first author, elucidates that the HHG pulses possess a broad spectrum consisting of various frequencies, akin to different colors in the visible range. Conversely, FEL pulses exhibit a much narrower spectral range.

The FEL pulses, harnessed from the free-electron laser in Hamburg (FLASH@DESY), were employed to excite the electrons within oxygen molecules, propelling them into a specific state. This state initiates the dissociation of the molecule through two distinct channels, the exact speed of which has remained elusive until now. The process is hindered by the necessity for the oxygen atoms to undergo quantum tunneling, making precise theoretical descriptions challenging. To address this issue, the researchers introduced a second HHG pulse with an adjustable time delay after the initial FEL pulse. This experimental setup enabled the team to record the molecular dissociation akin to capturing a fast-paced photographic series. The HHG pulses facilitated the simultaneous recording of all resulting fragments by analyzing their spectral absorption fingerprints, representing a major breakthrough in understanding the dissociation process. By increasing the time delay between the two pulses, an augmented number of molecules had already undergone decay. This escalation in fragments facilitated the determination of process duration and the respective rates for the two decay channels.

The successful manipulation of targeted electronic or molecular processes using FEL pulses, in conjunction with the expansive quantum-mechanical state information derived from the broadband HHG spectra, holds immense promise. This achievement lays the groundwork for capturing, comprehending, and ultimately regulating more intricate chemical reactions through the utilization of light. These advancements in quantum mechanical control of chemical reactions have far-reaching implications for various fields, including materials science, energy conversion, and drug development. With further research and refinement, the ability to selectively trigger and guide chemical reactions at the molecular level may revolutionize how we design and engineer new materials and substances.

The recent achievement in selectively exciting a molecule using extreme-ultraviolet light sources and tracking its dissociation over time represents a significant milestone towards achieving precise quantum mechanical control of chemical reactions. The integration of two distinct XUV light sources facilitated the observation and understanding of quantum tunneling processes within oxygen molecules. This breakthrough paves the way for harnessing the power of light to initiate, direct, and comprehend complex chemical reactions, holding immense potential for future advancements across scientific disciplines.

Science

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