Saturday, September 17, 2011

Infrared laser makes electron movement visible

By hitting an atom with a rotating infrared laser, scientists have visualized the path of an electron. For their experiments, they used a special hydrogen ion, composed of two protons and just one electron. Having only one electron is probably easier to track, but nevertheless the result is astonishing: for the first time, we are able to see an electron depart from an atom with our own eyes, and track its movement and behaviour. 

With this method it is possible to follow electrons as they jump from atom to atom to create bonds in chemical reactions. The first step is most often the release of an electron, which is then free to bind to an other atom, and correspondingly pair with other electrons in the cloud surrounding the nucleus. Visualizing this process could help us in understanding the way chemical bonds are formed. And even if it doesn't, it's pretty amazing to see a fundamental principle of life and matter in action. Sadly, only the picture showed above has been made available. No videos, but perhaps it is not surprising, as the motion needs to be slowed down tremendously, before our eyes are even aware that something is happening.

Previously, it was possible to show movement of molecules and atoms with a laser, but to visualize even smaller electrons, an even faster laser is needed. Electron movement is measured in attoseconds (10-18 of a second), which is impossible to measure with regularly used femtolasers.

An interesting fact about the escape of the electron, after being hit by the laser, is that it departs from the hydrogen ion 350 attoseconds after the electrical pulse by the laser is at its strongest. The scientists gave no explanation for this delay. 

The implications of this visualizing study are unclear to me. But perhaps, by gaining visual insight in the bonding process of electrons in chemical reactions, we might be able to more precisely guide the formation of molecules in a reaction.

Visualizing the invisible world is something that will never cease to amaze.

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