Researchers used their electron-scanning microscope, which they likened to the Millennium Falcon, to control a single molecule and influence a chemical reaction. Photo by University of Bath
Sept. 7 (UPI) -- Using a microscope and its electrical current, physicists have found a way to manipulate and control a single molecule. The breakthrough happened by accident.
In the lab, scientists were observing a basic chemical reaction under an electron microscope. Normally, when the current of the microscope is increased, the reaction happens faster.
This time, it didn't.
"This was data from an utterly standard experiment we were doing because we thought we had exhausted all the interesting stuff -- this was just a final check," Kristina Rusimova, physicist at the University of Bath, said in a news release. "But my data looked 'wrong' -- all the graphs were supposed to go up and mine went down."
Scientists at Bath spent months trying to explain the anomaly. After repeating their experiment several times, researchers realized they had discovered a new way to control a single molecule and influence a chemical reaction.
The reaction being studied is triggered by the introduction of a single electron.
The physicists found the length of time the introduced electron spent stuck to the target molecule was reduced by an order of two magnitudes when the tip of the electron microscope was between 600 to 800 trillionths of a meter away from the molecule.
Scientists believe the microscope tip and molecule interact to produce a new quantum state, allowing the electron to briefly jump ship and minimizing contact between the electron and molecule.
The experiments yielded a surprising result using an unexpected tool.
"I always think our microscope is a bit like the Millennium Falcon, not too elegant, held together by the people who run it, but utterly fantastic at what it does," said researcher Peter Sloan. "Between Kristina and Ph.D. student Rebecca Purkiss the level of spatial control they had over the microscope was the key to unlocking this new physics."
The researchers described their feat this week in the journal Science.
"The fundamental aim of this work is to develop the tools to allow us to control matter at this extreme limit," Sloan said. "Be it breaking chemical bonds that nature doesn't really want you to break, or producing molecular architectures that are thermodynamically forbidden. Our work offers a new route to control single molecules and their reaction."