Chemiscope To Help Chemistry In Action
March 18, 2014

New Instrument Could Observe Chemical Reactions As They Happen

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine’s Center for Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit (CaSTL) have reportedly developed a new tool that could make it possible to observe the making and breaking of chemical bonds and how molecules behave during a chemical reaction.

The device is known as the “chemiscope,” and according to CaSTL officials it could revolutionize chemistry in much the same way that the microscope radically changed the field of biology. However, the instrument’s spatial resolution will have to be improved by a factor of 10,000 over the best optical microscope in order to see individual atoms.

Furthermore, the images would have to be recorded at a frame rate of one thousand million million per second (one frame per femtosecond), and the two capabilities have to be combined in order to reach joint space-time resolution at angstrom-femtosecond (Å-fs) limit in order to record moving pictures of even the most basic steps of chemistry. In other words, the challenge faced by the chemiscope’s developers is a daunting one.

According to the National Science Foundation (NSF), which is supporting the CaSTL project, gaining the capability to observe atoms, bonds and molecules in real space-time would “completely shift the paradigm in chemical inquiry” and would be “the first step toward manipulating individual atoms and molecules.”

Eventually, it could become possible for researchers “to atomistically engineer molecules and control chemistry.” That would in turn “drive future innovations in chemistry, and in industries based on nanotechnology and molecular electronics,” according to UCI chemist and CaSTL director Ara Apkarian, who leads a team of experts from several different universities and private-sector firms working on the chemiscope.

[ Watch the Video: Chemiscope Catches Chemistry in the Act ]

In a recent video, Apkarian and his colleagues demonstrated how the chemiscope could observe the motion of a single electron inside one molecule, the quantum mechanical motion of a lone chemical bond in both an ensemble and in solo, and the hula-hoop style orbiting of an orbital, making and breaking of specific single bonds on a lone molecule. Also included in the film is an animated clip simulating the breaking of a bond.

“The chemiscope is designed not to see chemicals, but to see chemistry in action,” Apkarian said. He noted that the device would be one method of “getting down to atomic resolution,” and that it uses flashes of light generated by lasers and electrical currents in order to capture images. The electrical signals are picked up by devices resembling old record players, which approaches the molecule and pokes it so that is can be observed in high resolution.

“We really would like to understand the secret of what makes, or what makes a good photocell, or what makes a good photovoltaic,” the UCI chemist added. “That’s where being able to see the single becomes crucial, and we can arrange molecules as we wish, go break bonds and attach atoms and bonds to molecules. That would be one of the ways that, in the future, nanotechnology is going to go forward.”