Chemical Transformations Driven by Light Provide Key Insight to Steps in Solar-energy Conversion
An international team has for the first time precisely tracked the surprisingly rapid process by which light rearranges the outermost electrons of a metal compound and turns it into an active catalyst – a substance that promotes chemical reactions.
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory
This artistic rendering shows an iron-centered molecule that is severed by laser light (upper left). Within hundreds of femtoseconds, or quadrillionths of a second, a molecule of ethanol from a solvent rushes in (bottom right) to bond with the iron-centered molecule.
The results, published April 1 in Nature, could help in the effort to develop novel catalysts to efficiently produce fuel using sunlight. The research was performed with an X-ray laser at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.
“We were able to determine how light rearranges the outermost electrons of the compound on timescales down to a few hundred femtoseconds, or quadrillionths of a second,” said Philippe Wernet, a scientist at Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin for Materials and Energy who led the experiment.
Researchers hope that learning these details will allow them to develop rules for predicting and controlling the short-lived early steps in important reactions, including the ones plants use to turn sunlight and water into fuel during photosynthesis. Scientists are seeking to replicate these natural processes to produce hydrogen fuel from sunlight and water, for example, and to master the chemistry required to produce other renewable fuels.
“The eventual goal is to design chemical reactions that behave exactly the way you want them to,” Wernet said.
In the experiment at SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source, a DOE Office of Science User Facility, the scientists studied a yellowish fluid called iron pentacarbonyl, which consists of carbon monoxide “spurs” surrounding a central iron atom. It is a basic building block for more complex compounds and also provides a simple model for studying light-induced chemical reactions.
Researchers had known that exposing this iron compound to light can cleave off one of the five carbon monoxide spurs, causing the molecule’s remaining electrons to rearrange. The arrangement of the outermost electrons determines the molecule’s reactivity – including whether it might make a good catalyst – and also informs how reactions unfold.
What wasn’t well understood was just how quickly this light-triggered transformation occurs and which short-lived intermediate states the molecule goes through on its way to becoming a stable product.
At LCLS, the scientists struck a thin stream of the iron compound, which was mixed into an ethanol solvent, with pulses of optical laser light to break up the iron-centered molecules. Just hundreds of femtoseconds later, an ultrabright X-ray pulse probed the molecules’ transformation, which was recorded with sensitive detectors.
By varying the arrival time of the X-ray pulses, they tracked the rearrangements of the outermost electrons during the molecular transformations.
Roughly half of the severed molecules enter a chemically reactive state in which their outermost electrons are prone to binding other molecules. As a consequence, they either reconnect with the severed part or bond with an ethanol molecule to form a new compound. In other cases the outermost electrons in the molecule stabilize themselves in a configuration that makes the molecule non-reactive. All of these changes were observed within the time it takes light to travel a few thousandths of an inch.
“To see this happen so quickly was extremely surprising,” Wernet said.
Several years’ worth of data analysis and theoretical work were integral to the study, he said. The next step is to move on from model compounds to LCLS studies of the actual molecules used to make solar fuels.
“This was a really exciting experiment, as it was the first time we used the LCLS to study chemistry in a liquid compound,” said Josh Turner, a SLAC staff scientist who participated in the experiment. “The LCLS is unique in the world in its ability to resolve these types of ultrafast processes in the right energy range for this compound.”
SLAC’s Kelly Gaffney, a chemist who contributed expertise in how the changing arrangement of electrons steered the chemical reactions, said, “This work helps set the stage for future studies at LCLS and shows how cooperation across different research areas at SLAC enables broader and better science.”
In addition to researchers from Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin for Materials and Energy and LCLS, other scientists who assisted in the study were from: SLAC’s Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource; the SLAC and Stanford PULSE Institute; University of Potsdam, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Goettingen University and DESY lab in Germany; Stockholm University and MAX-lab in in Sweden; Utrecht University in the Netherlands; Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland; and the University of Pennsylvania.
This work was supported by the Volkswagen Foundation, the Swedish Research Council, the Carl Tryggers Foundation, the Magnus Bergvall Foundation, Collaborative Research Centers of the German Science Foundation and the Helmholtz Virtual Institute “Dynamic Pathways in Multidimensional Landscapes,” and the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science.
SLAC is a multi-program laboratory exploring frontier questions in photon science, astrophysics, particle physics and accelerator research. Located in Menlo Park, Calif., SLAC is operated by Stanford University for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science. For more information, please visit slac.stanford.edu.
SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory is supported by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy. The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov.
Andrew Gordon | newswise
When Air is in Short Supply - Shedding light on plant stress reactions when oxygen runs short
23.03.2017 | Institut für Pflanzenbiochemie
WPI team grows heart tissue on spinach leaves
23.03.2017 | Worcester Polytechnic Institute
Astronomers from Bonn and Tautenburg in Thuringia (Germany) used the 100-m radio telescope at Effelsberg to observe several galaxy clusters. At the edges of these large accumulations of dark matter, stellar systems (galaxies), hot gas, and charged particles, they found magnetic fields that are exceptionally ordered over distances of many million light years. This makes them the most extended magnetic fields in the universe known so far.
The results will be published on March 22 in the journal „Astronomy & Astrophysics“.
Galaxy clusters are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the universe. With a typical extent of about 10 million light years, i.e. 100 times the...
Researchers at the Goethe University Frankfurt, together with partners from the University of Tübingen in Germany and Queen Mary University as well as Francis Crick Institute from London (UK) have developed a novel technology to decipher the secret ubiquitin code.
Ubiquitin is a small protein that can be linked to other cellular proteins, thereby controlling and modulating their functions. The attachment occurs in many...
In the eternal search for next generation high-efficiency solar cells and LEDs, scientists at Los Alamos National Laboratory and their partners are creating...
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are less stable. Now researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have, for the first time ever, produced a composite material combining silicon nanosheets and a polymer that is both UV-resistant and easy to process. This brings the scientists a significant step closer to industrial applications like flexible displays and photosensors.
Silicon nanosheets are thin, two-dimensional layers with exceptional optoelectronic properties very similar to those of graphene. Albeit, the nanosheets are...
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to simulate these confined natural conditions in artificial vesicles for the first time. As reported in the academic journal Small, the results are offering better insight into the development of nanoreactors and artificial organelles.
Enzymes behave differently in a test tube compared with the molecular scrum of a living cell. Chemists from the University of Basel have now been able to...
20.03.2017 | Event News
14.03.2017 | Event News
07.03.2017 | Event News
23.03.2017 | Life Sciences
23.03.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering
23.03.2017 | Earth Sciences