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March 17, 2014

Chemiscope to catch chemistry in the act

Center for Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit develops new tool that could revolutionize chemistry

What the microscope did to unlock the secrets of biology, the “chemiscope” is intended to do, to revolutionize chemistry. The ultimate goal is to observe chemistry in the act, to see the making and breaking of bonds in real-space and real-time.

The challenge is great. To see individual atoms, spatial resolution must be improved by a factor of 10,000 over the best optical microscope. To see molecules in motion, the images must be recorded at a frame rate of a thousand million million per second (a frame / femtosecond). The two capabilities must be combined to reach joint space-time resolution at angstrom-femtosecond (-fs) limit, to record moving pictures of elementary steps in chemistry.

The ability to see the world of molecules, atoms and bonds, in real space-time, would completely shift the paradigm in chemical inquiry.

Seeing is the first step toward manipulating individual atoms and molecules, to atomistically engineer molecules and control chemistry. Such a capability will drive future innovations in chemistry, and in industries based on nanotechnology and molecular electronics.

With support from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the Center for Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit (CaSTL), is a nexus of the multidisciplinary expertise required to develop the enabling science and technology to make the chemiscope a reality. With University of California, Irvine (UCI), chemist Ara Apkarian as center director, a group of scientists with backgrounds in chemistry, physics and engineering, from multiple universities and industry, have joined forces on this mission. The video clip highlighted recent recordings of: the motion of one electron inside one molecule; the quantum mechanical motion of a single chemical bond in an ensemble and in solo; and the hula hoop-like orbiting of an orbital, breaking and making of designated single bonds on a single molecule. These measurements were made using instruments developed within the center, by groups led by Professors V. A. Apkarian, E. Potma and W. Ho of UCI. The animated clip of the breaking of a bond is a simulation contributed by Professor F. Furche.

CaSTL is one of the NSF-funded Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCI)--research centers focused on major, long-term fundamental chemical research challenges. CCIs that address these challenges will produce transformative research, lead to innovation, and attract broad scientific and public interest. The mission of CaSTL is to develop and apply the chemiscope to solve grand challenges in chemistry. Heterogeneous catalysis, photocatalysis and plasmonic chemistry are targeted examples where, to make credible progress, it is essential to “see” the workings of individual molecules and their reactive sites.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #0802913, The Center for Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit (CaSTL).

Miles O'Brien, Science Nation Correspondent
Marsha Walton, Science Nation Producer

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations presented in this material are only those of the presenter grantee/researcher, author, or agency employee; and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.