Lab Canada

Study shows how electrons move in a chemical reaction

Ottawa, ON – A revolutionary experiment conducted by the University of Ottawa and the National Research Council of Canada’s Joint Attosecond Science Laboratory (JASLab) to solve the mystery of how electrons move in a chemical reaction has been published in the journal Science.

The research produced unprecedented images of how the energy of light is processed in a molecule and showed how electrons move and rearrange as a chemical reaction proceeds.

The team of international scientists from Canada and France worked with nitrogen dioxide molecules (NO2), which is an atmospheric pollutant. Using an intense femtosecond laser pulse, the scientists recorded the instances after the molecule was struck by the intense light.

The new approach, called high-harmonic spectroscopy, allowed the researchers to observe the NO2 molecule until it began to shake and jiggle and eventually separated into a nitrogen oxide (NO) molecule and an oxygen atom.

This is a fundamental advance in the understanding of how molecules respond to light. The experiment mimics the mechanisms involved in vision, where light strikes a molecule and changes its shape, or in photosynthesis, where molecules transform the energy of light to make biomass from carbon dioxide (CO2).

The discovery will contribute to the creation of lower-cost and lower-waste chemical processes and products, impact the light-controlled synthesis of molecules and lead to better solar cells. It also holds tremendous potential for the development of artificial photosynthesis.

The joint NRC-University of Ottawa research team included NRC Attosecond Science Program group leader David M Villeneuve and Herzberg medalist Paul Corkum, director of JASLab.