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August 13th, 2007

Snapshots of electrons

No flash of light can be shorter than the time it takes the wave carrying the flash to perform a full oscillation. A team headed by Prof. Ferenc Krausz, Director, Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics in Munich, Germany, has now succeeded in generating - for the first time - flashes of intense laser light that deliver more than half of their energy within a single wellcontrolled wave cycle. Atoms exposed to this extreme light pulse emit an attosecond X-ray pulse (1 attosecond = one billionth of a billionth of a second) whose wave components, if oscillating more slowly, would represent nearly all colours of visible light, all the way from blue through green and yellow to red. The resultant "white" pulse has an expected duration of about 100 attoseconds and is composed of more than a million X-ray photons. Therefore, it is brief enough, and powerful enough to capture the motion of electrons moving on molecular orbitals. Real-time observation of the electrons that bind atoms together will provide invaluable insight into the microscopic origin of the formation and deformation of molecules. The results were reported in the July issue of New Journal of Physics and featured on the cover of Science (August 10, 2007).


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