Artistic representation of the dynamics of ring opening of the furan molecule.
watermark — a wave that decreases in amplitude and wavelength after passing through an area of points

Molecular dynamics in real time

Ultra-fast processes within molecules can be tracked using a new spectroscopic method
Artistic representation of the dynamics of ring opening of the furan molecule.
Image: ICFO / EllaMaru Studio


A European research team has developed a new spectroscopic method that can be used to track ultrafast dynamic processes of electrons and vibrations within molecules - with atomic resolution and in real time. The experimental team in Barcelona was supported in the theoretical description of the processes by a team from the University of Jena. The researchers demonstrate their "attosecond nuclear spectroscopy" using the example of the furan molecule and present their method in the journal "Nature Photonics".

Chemical reactions are complex mechanisms. They involve various dynamic processes of electrons and atomic nuclei, which influence each other. Very often, strongly coupled electron and nuclear dynamics lead to ultrafast non-radiative relaxation processes known as conical overlaps. So far, however, such processes, which are of high chemical and biological relevance, have been very difficult to observe experimentally. The reason: the movements of the electrons and the atomic nuclei are difficult to distinguish from each other and take place on ultrafast time scales, down to the attosecond range - a billionth of a billionth of a second.

In a recent publication in "Nature Photonics", the experimental research team from the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) in Barcelona and the theoretical team led by Dr. Karl Michael Ziems and Prof. Dr. Stefanie Gräfe from Friedrich Schiller University Jena have now presented a powerful tool that can capture such molecular dynamics in real time. The researchers measured their method on the dynamics of the furan molecule in the gas phase. Furan is an organic molecule consisting of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, with the atoms arranged in a planar pentagonal geometry - as a "chemical ring". Furan is a prototypical example of chemical ring compounds that are found in numerous everyday products such as fuels, pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals.

How a chemical ring is opened and how it closes again

The team has succeeded in temporally resolving details of the ring-opening dynamics of furan, i.e. the splitting of the bond between a carbon atom and the oxygen atom, which breaks up the ring structure. For this purpose, the furan molecule was first excited by a laser beam (excitation pulse). With a subsequent, weaker attosecond pulse (interrogation pulse), the researchers were able to observe the changes in the molecule triggered by the excitation.

After the initial light excitation, the expected coupling regions between different states (conical intersections) could be localized in time by analyzing the changes in the absorption spectrum as a function of the delay between excitation and interrogation pulse. The appearance and disappearance of absorption features provide signatures for the changes in the electronic state of furan.

The researchers were thus able to show for the first time that a quantum superposition is generated between different electronic states - an electronic wave packet - which manifests itself in the form of so-called quantum beats. The actual ring opening via so-called dark states could also be demonstrated with the experimental setup. The transition of the molecule from a closed to an open ring geometry is reflected in a changed absorption spectrum. Finally, the molecule returned to its electronic ground state, the transition of which was also precisely time-resolved.

New tool for analyzing fast processes in molecules

The team of authors emphasizes that attosecond nuclear spectroscopy is not limited to studies of this particular molecule, but is suitable as a tool for a wide range of applications. For example, it could be used to analyze complex dynamics such as those that occur in the interaction between ultraviolet radiation and DNA. In addition, the researchers see the manipulation of chemical reaction processes as one of the most promising applications for their work.



Attosecond core-level absorption spectroscopy reveals the electronic and nuclear dynamics of molecular ring opening, S. Severino, K. M. Ziems, M. Reduzzi, A. Summers, H.-W. Sun, Y.-H. Chien, S. Gräfe & J. Biegert, 2024, Nature Photonics, link

Stefanie Gräfe, Univ.-Prof. Dr
Prof. Stefanie Gräfe
Image: Jens Meyer (University of Jena)
Room E004
Lessingstraße 4
07743 Jena Google Maps site planExternal link