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Surprising Science

By Controlling Individual Atoms, Researchers Watch Chemical Reactions at the Quantum Level

Researchers at Cambridge University have observed chemical reactions at the quantum level for the first time ever by isolating individual atoms and cooling them to incredibly low temperatures. 

What’s the Latest Development?

By isolating two individual atoms at extremely low temperatures, researchers have observed how chemical reactions function at the quantum level for the first time. Researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory were able to measure the chemical interactions between individual, ultracold ytterbium ions and rubidium atoms. While two atoms will naturally repel each other, scientists observed that “when an atom and a positive ion approach slowly, the ion’s charge draws part of the atom’s electron cloud towards it, leading to an attractive force between them.”

What’s the Big Idea?

Chemical reactions typically involve huge numbers of atoms or molecules, making it nearly impossible to discern what occurs at the quantum level, but the researchers’ new method, slowing atoms down by cooling them, allowed them to observe the details. A surprising observation was that atomic nuclei, previously assumed to play no role in chemical reactions, actually did make a difference to the reaction outcome depending on the electronic spin and the nuclear spin. “…this experiment provides an excellent demonstration of how manipulation of quantum states can lead to chemical reactions at very low temperatures.”

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