Watching Electrons with Lasers

November 6, 2008
A) Sketch of the positions of the nitrogen nuclei in the gas molecule (green). B and C) Electron recombining with the HOMO and HOMO-1. The returning electron is presented as a wave. The orbitals are shown as red and blue balloons.

( -- A team of researchers from the Stanford PULSE Institute for Ultrafast Energy Science at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory has recently moved a step closer to visualizing the motions of electrons in molecules using a technique called high harmonic generation, or HHG.

Understanding these movements may help scientists better understand the early stages of chemical reactions. Electrons fuel chemical reactions. When chemicals react, electrons move between the molecules, building and breaking the connections, or bonds, that link atoms.

But in the world of quantum mechanics, electrons aren't easy to pin down. Physicists and chemists create mathematical descriptions called orbitals to illustrate the chance of finding an electron at a specific location of a molecule. Representations of these orbitals look like balloons attached to an atom's nucleus, the center of the atom.

"Orbitals are mathematical constructs," said SLAC researcher Markus Guehr, a member of the PULSE team. "They help us to understand how all of the processes work in there."

Guehr and the PULSE team used HHG to learn about the electron orbitals of nitrogen gas molecules. In an HHG experiment, the researchers use molecules as tiny accelerator light sources. A laser beam is focused onto a stream of cooled nitrogen gas. The electric field of the laser tears an electron from a nitrogen molecule. As the laser field oscillates, the electron is accelerated back into the molecule and recombines with its orbital. Once the electron returns to the molecule, its energy is converted into light in the extreme ultraviolet range.

The spectrum of the light emanating from the molecule depends on the nature of the orbital the electron hits. By analyzing the number of photons at particular energies produced by this molecular laser, the team can characterize a specific orbital in the molecule.

But to understand how electrons move within a molecule over time, physicists need to characterize multiple orbitals.

In a report published in Science Express on October 30, the PULSE team, which also included Brian McFarland, Joseph Farrell and PULSE director Philip Bucksbaum, described the first evidence of HHG light signals from two different orbitals. Before these experiments, scientists had observed only light generated from electrons colliding with an orbital called the highest occupied molecular orbital, or HOMO. This orbital is the highest energy orbital that contains an electron. Physicists had theorized that detecting other orbitals was possible, but no one had observed multiple signals in an experiment.

The PULSE team reported detecting light from another orbital called the HOMO-1, which is one energy level lower than the HOMO. To detect light from the HOMO-1, the researchers had to align the nitrogen molecules perpendicular to the laser's electric field, to produce more efficient collisions between electrons and the orbital.

"The really important thing is that you get this multi-orbital contribution to high harmonic generation, which changes the way you think about it," Guehr said. By imaging two orbitals at once, Guehr hopes they can begin to observe how electrons race around in molecules.

Science article:

Provided by Michael Torrice, SLAC Today

Explore further: The element of surprise

Related Stories

The element of surprise

March 14, 2018

Many of us are often told we bear a resemblance to another member of our family—for instance, that we have our mother's nose or our father's eyes.

Energy level alignment for molecular electronics

March 14, 2018

NUS physicists have found that complex electron-electron interactions change the energy levels at molecule-metal interfaces, affecting the performance of molecular electronic devices.

Crab Nebula: A crab walks through time

March 14, 2018

Next year marks the 20th anniversary of NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory launch into space. The Crab Nebula was one of the first objects that Chandra examined with its sharp X-ray vision, and it has been a frequent target ...

Artificial "maple seeds" from rockets

March 8, 2018

The Space Team at TU Wien is launching an ambitious project together with the University of Würzburg. Measurement devices are going to be ejected from a rocket and will fall to Earth without a parachute.

Recommended for you

Scientists create diodes made of light

March 16, 2018

Photonics researchers at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) have achieved the extra-ordinary by creating a diode consisting of light that can be used, for the first time, in miniaturised photonic circuits, as published ...

Quantum speed limits are not actually quantum

March 15, 2018

Quantum mechanics has fundamental speed limits—upper bounds on the rate at which quantum systems can evolve. However, two groups working independently have published papers showing for the first time that quantum speed ...

The view from inside supersonic combustion

March 15, 2018

In a jet engine, the flow of air is slowed down to increase the temperature and pressure for combustion—burning fuel with the right ratio of fuel and air to conquer drag allows for acceleration.

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Nov 12, 2008
Mmm... people annoy me.

Velvetpink, I don't think you understand the possible applications of this new technology. In fact, neither do I. But I think it would be best to get a grasp on them before bashing the PULSE team or the author of this article.

out7x, glad you understand what an orbital is. (Somehow I got the feeling that velvetpink has no idea...) I believe the report is trying to emphasize the significance of not the ability to *predict* the location of an electron, but to actually be able to tell which orbital a specific electron is occupying at a given time.

What I don't understand is the... hmm... the "time frame," as it were, of the HHG. Is the laser only determining the orbital with which the electron first makes contact upon its reentry, or does it track that electron over a period of time? One would think that that would be the real challenge; tracking its movement over a given interval... But then, in order to produce readings corresponding to other orbitals, such as HOMO-1, wouldn't the electron have to travel from HOMO into this other orbital? What type of time frame is that?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.