With an extremely fast “electron camera” at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, researchers have made the first high-definition “movie” of ring-shaped molecules breaking open in response to light. The results could further our understanding of similar reactions with vital roles in chemistry, such as the production of vitamin D in our bodies.
(Visualization of a molecular movie made with SLAC’s electron camera, in which researchers have captured in atomic detail how a ring-shaped molecule opens up in the first 800 millionths of a billionth of a second after being hit by a laser flash. Ring-opening reactions like this one play important roles in chemistry, such as the light-driven synthesis of vitamin D in our bodies. (Thomas Wolf/PULSE Institute)
A previous molecular movie of the same reaction, produced with SLAC’s Linac Coherent Light Source (LCLS) X-ray laser, for the first time recorded the large structural changes during the reaction. Now, making use of the lab’s ultrafast electron diffraction (UED) instrument, these new results provide high-resolution details – showing, for instance, how a bond in the ring breaks and atoms jiggle around for extended periods of time.
“The details of this ring-opening reaction have now been settled,” said Thomas Wolf, a scientist at the Stanford Pulse Institute of SLAC and Stanford University and leader of the research team. “The fact that we can now directly measure changes in bond distances during chemical reactions allows us to ask new questions about fundamental processes stimulated by light.”
SLAC scientist Mike Minitti, who was involved in both studies, said, “The results demonstrate how our unique instruments for studying ultrafast processes complement each other. Where LCLS excels in capturing snapshots with extremely fast shutter speeds of only a few femtoseconds, or millionths of a billionth of a second, UED cranks up the spatial resolution of these snapshots. This is a great result, and the studies validate one another’s findings, which is important when making use of entirely new measurement tools.”
LCLS Director Mike Dunne said, “We’re now making SLAC’s UED instrument available to the broad scientific community, in addition to enhancing the extraordinary capabilities of LCLS by doubling its energy reach and transforming its repetition rate. The combination of both tools uniquely positions us to enable the best possible studies of fundamental processes on ultrasmall and ultrafast scales.”