New method knocks out stubborn electron problem

July 3, 2012
David Mazziotti, a professor in chemistry at the University of Chicago, has solved a longstanding problem in quantum theory: how to compute the energies and properties of any atom or molecule in terms of just two of its electrons. Credit: Kasra Naftchi-Ardebili

A newly published article in Physical Review Letters eliminates one of the top unsolved theoretical problems in chemical physics as ranked by the National Research Council in 1995. Scientists now can more accurately predict the dynamic behavior of electrons in atoms and molecules in chemical reactions that govern a wide range of phenomena, including the fuel efficiency of combustion engines and the depletion of the atmospheric ozone.

The paper by David Mazziotti, professor in chemistry at the University of Chicago, solves what specialists call the "N-representability problem." Robert Erdahl, a mathematician at Queens University in Canada and a leading authority on the N-representability problem, described Mazziotti's paper as "a striking advance," "an elegant theory," and "a remarkable achievement."

Research on the theoretical foundations of the problem has advanced significantly along two important but separate lines of research for more than 60 years, Erdahl noted. "Work in both directions has proceeded independently even though it was widely understood that a unified approach was required to achieve a clear understanding. However, no one has been able to construct a theory where both paths enter in partnership. In his recent work Mazziotti has achieved precisely that."

Molecules have anywhere from tens to thousands of electrons, and the of simulating their behavior grows exponentially with the number of strongly correlated electrons, those whose motions are statistically linked to the motions of other electrons. Mazziotti's goal was to find a way to calculate the properties of many-electron systems via a two-electron technique, where the two electrons represent the other electrons in the system.

"The two-electron models provide a platform for exploring a whole range of chemistry and physics," Mazziotti said.

"If you are calculating, let's say, the water molecule, which has 10 electrons, your two-electron model has only two of the 10 electrons," Mazziotti said. "But the probability for finding those two electrons must be consistent with the other eight in the real system."

The need for these consistencies, "What we call 'representability conditions,' are the necessary conditions that you really need to do two-electron calculations of many-electron molecules," he said.

Like minds

Three scientists independently proposed the idea of a two-electron model in the 1950s. One was A. John Coleman, a mathematician at Queens University in Canada, who presented the idea at a 1951 conference at Chalk River, Canada.

Two papers appeared in the journal Physical Review in 1955 making the same point. University of Chicago physicist Joseph Mayer authored one of the papers, while University of Florida chemist Per Olov Löwdin authored the other.

The search for these conditions later became known as the N-representability problem, following the terminology that Coleman had suggested in a 1963 paper published in Reviews of Modern Physics.

"Then there was a series of international conferences that were organized to search for these conditions," Mazziotti said.

An early confidence that researchers would work out the necessary conditions within a year or two gave way to despair in the late 1960s. By then it appeared that the previously unsuspected difficulty of the representability problem presented a potentially impossible barrier.

By the time the problem had come to Mazziotti's attention as a Harvard graduate student in 1995, the field had reached its nadir. In the early 2000s he began reviving interest in the problem with his formulation of mathematical procedures for some of the known conditions, and applying them for the first time to atoms and molecules.

Over the last 10 years, Mazziotti's steadily improving, two-electron models advanced chemistry research in ways not possible with the traditional equations of quantum mechanics.

"The thing is that we used partial N-representability conditions because we didn't know all of them," Mazziotti said. "We would never use all of them anyway, but it's one thing not to use all of the constraints. It's another thing not to know what they are."

Gap plugged

Mazziotti's paper plugs that gap, making the two-electron model a powerfully complete theory for mapping many-electron systems. "We can achieve much greater accuracy in our calculations by adding some of these new conditions that we've discovered," he said. "It's exciting because it's something I've been looking for since I started thinking about this in 1995."

Coleman, who died in 2010, said years ago that what inspired him to work on the N-representability problem was not the goal of computational efficiency or additional speed. It was instead the potential for tremendous new insight into how many-electron systems really work. "Ultimately, that is the driving force in my research, too," Mazziotti said.

Explore further: New method improves modeling of electrons' motions in complex molecules

More information: "Structure of Fermionic Density Matrices: Complete N-representability Conditions," Physical Review Letters.

Related Stories

Quantum information motion control is now improved

April 3, 2012

Physicists have recently devised a new method for handling the effect of the interplay between vibrations and electrons on electronic transport. Their paper is about to be published in the European Physical Journal B. This ...

How Cagey Electrons Keep Hydrated

December 20, 2007

Water, despite its essential role in nature, remains a deeply mysterious substance. A long list of water's unusual properties tantalizes researchers even today, and scientists at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory ...

Watching Electrons with Lasers

November 6, 2008

( -- 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 ...

Recommended for you

Probe for nanofibers has atom-scale sensitivity

January 20, 2017

Optical fibers are the backbone of modern communications, shuttling information from A to B through thin glass filaments as pulses of light. They are used extensively in telecommunications, allowing information to travel ...

Magnetic recording with light and no heat on garnet

January 19, 2017

A strong, short light pulse can record data on a magnetic layer of yttrium iron garnet doped with Co-ions. This was discovered by researchers from Radboud University in the Netherlands and Bialystok University in Poland. ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

5 / 5 (3) Jul 03, 2012
Nobel prize worthy I should think.
1 / 5 (1) Jul 03, 2012
But according Heisenberg uncertainty principle,The more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known.

So I wonder how professor do the experiment .
Can somebody offer me a explanation? thx
5 / 5 (4) Jul 04, 2012
But according Heisenberg uncertainty principle,The more precisely the position of some particle is determined, the less precisely its momentum can be known.

So I wonder how professor do the experiment.

The N-representability problem is not about precision measurements, not about an experiment, but about precision modelling, i.e. mathematics. I have a physical system consisting of, say, 10 electrons and I want to describe it efficiently by a mathematical model with only two electrons.

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.