A laboratory method developed for making and analyzing cold, concentrated samples of a mysterious "floppy" molecule thought to be abundant only in outer space has revealed new data that help explain the molecules properties.
The advance, described in the Jan. 6 issue of Science,* is a step toward overcoming a decades-old challenge in chemistry--explaining reactions that occur within very cold clouds among the stars, and perhaps for developing new chemical processes. The paper combines experiments performed by David Nesbitt and colleagues at JILA, a joint institute of the Commerce Departments National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and University of Colorado at Boulder, with theoretical predictions made with Joel Bowman at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga., and Anne McCoy at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
Most molecules have a rigid three-dimensional (3D) structure. The subject of the new study is "protonated" methane, which contains one carbon atom and five hydrogen atoms, one of which is ionized, leaving nothing but a proton (a particle with a positive charge). The five protons from the hydrogen atoms scramble for four bonds around the molecule as if playing a continuous game of musical chairs. In the process, the molecule classically vibrates and rotates in a bizarre manner, morphing between several 3D structures with nearly identical energy levels. (Animation available at http://www.nist.gov/public_affairs/images/floppy_animation.htm.) Chemists have spent decades trying to explain why and how this occurs, a challenge that has seemed insurmountable until recently.
Laura Ost | EurekAlert!
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