Caption: The x-ray laser investigates the change in the electron structure when CO molecules desorb from a metal surface of ruthenium. Roughly 30% of the molecules are pumped up with the aid of a femtosecond of optic laser from the surface-bonded (“chemisorbed”) state to a transient intermediate state (“precursor”) where they interact faintly with the surface. By examining the molecules with the x-ray laser with varying delay periods, it is possible to show that the time scale for achieving the precursor state is a few picoseconds and that they exist there for a few tens of picoseconds before either leaving the surface entirely or returning to the surface.
In the experiment, CO molecules were dosed onto a metal surface of ruthenium, which is used in automobile catalytic converters, for instance. CO binds strongly to the surface but can be made to let go by heating up the surface, which was done with a pulse from an optical laser. By starting the reaction for all the molecules at the same time, the team got a sufficient number of molecules to simultaneously enter a state where they have almost let go of the surface but still have a weak binding to it. From this short-lived state, the molecules can then continue out into a gas phase or renew their bond when the surface cools down again.“Scientists have long speculated whether such a state, a so-called ‘precursor,’ exists. The new experiment is the first to directly show its existence,” says Lars G. M. Pettersson at the Department of Physic, Stockholm University. These studies will not go on to more complex reactions of interest to the field of synthetic fuels, among other applications.
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