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Home > Press > Birmingham Scientists Witness the Birth of an Atom

Molecular dissection induces the "birth" of a daughter atom from the parent molecule

Birmingham Scientists Witness the Birth of an Atom

March 22, 2005

Scientists from the University of Birmingham's Nanoscale Science Facility have made a breakthrough in manipulating the smallest single molecules and atoms by devising a new technique of molecular dissection which induces the "birth" of a daughter atom from the parent molecule.

This breakthrough, which is highlighted in a paper published in the journal, Nature, today (Thursday 17 March), is significant for two reasons - not only have University physicists developed a novel method of dissociation using two electrons, but they have also successfully achieved this experiment at room temperature.

The new method, devised by Professor Richard Palmer and Dr Peter Sloan, uses the tip of a Scanning Tunnelling Microscope (STM) to inject two electrons into the parent chlorobenzine molecule to induce a dissociation event - the first electron sets the molecule into vibration and the second electron breaks the bond between the parent molecule and daughter chlorine atom.

Previous experiments of this nature have only been possible at cryogenic temperatures - 269 degrees centigrade below zero - as heat can have a dramatic affect in destabilising the target molecule. However, by anchoring the parent molecule - chlorobenzine - to a silicon surface through the carbon ring that forms part of the molecule, the molecule can be fixed strongly enough to manipulate it.

Professor Richard Palmer explains the significance of the breakthrough: "Through this experiment we are operating at the ultimate level of control over chemistry. We've instigated a rapid ejection of the chlorine daughter atom, as it shoots away from the parent molecule across the surface. It's fantastic to witness such a fundamental process under the microscope.

"What's more, we have a chance to harness this new knowledge of chemical selectivity and apply it to make chemistry more tuneable. With our colleagues in the School of Biosciences, we are now exploring whether this type of process can be exploited in the field of bioremediation, with the goal of breaking down and extract hazardous contaminants to improve the environment."

The Nanoscale Science Facility (NSF), within the University's School of Physics and Astronomy, explores in great depth the manipulation of single atoms and molecules - 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair - in order to significantly enhance a number of fields from materials to chemicals, biomedical analysis to information technology.

Rachel Robson
Press Officer
University of Birmingham
tel: 0121 414 6681
mob: 07789 921165

Copyright University of Birmingham

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