Researchers at Ohio State University and Kansas State University have captured the first-ever images of atoms moving in a molecule.
Shown here is molecular nitrogen.
The researchers used an ultrafast laser to knock one electron from the molecule, and recorded the diffraction pattern that was created when the electron scattered off the molecule.
The image highlights any changes the molecule went through during the time between laser pulses: one quadrillionth of a second.
The constituent atoms' movement is shown as a measure of increasing angular momentum, on a scale from dark blue to pink, with pink showing the region of greatest momentum.
Key to the experiment, which appears in this week's issue of the journal Nature, is the researchers' use of the energy of a molecule's own electron as a kind of "flash bulb" to illuminate the molecular motion.
The team used ultrafast laser pulses to knock one electron out of its natural orbit in a molecule. The electron then fell back toward the molecule scattered off of it, analogous to the way a flash of light scatters around an object, or a water ripple scatters in a pond.
Principal investigator Louis DiMauro of Ohio State University said that the feat marks a first step toward not only observing chemical reactions, but also controlling them on an atomic scale.
...Beyond its potential for controlling chemical reactions, the technique offers a new tool to study the structure and dynamics of matter, he said.
"Ultimately, we want to really understand how chemical reactions take place. So, long-term, there would be applications in materials science and even chemical manufacturing."