Helicopter or cartwheel?

June 23, 2020

What happens when a molecule collides with a surface? Researchers at Swansea University have shown that the orientation of the molecule as it moves - whether it is spinning like a helicopter blade or rolling like a cartwheel - is important in determining what happens in the collision.

The interaction of molecules with surfaces lies at the heart of many research fields and applications: plant fertilizers and chemicals, industrial catalysts, atmospheric chemical reactions on ice and dust particles, and even - in space - the processes through which a star is born.

A key question in the field of surface science is understanding whether a molecule, when it collides with a surface, will scatter back to the gas phase, adsorb on the surface, or react and break down into fragments.

One molecular property which can change the outcome of a collision is the rotational orientation of the molecule. However, the current understanding of this relation is very limited, as it is usually impossible to control or measure the orientation of a rotating molecule.

This is where the Swansea team's research comes in. The team, led by Professor Gil Alexandrowicz of Swansea University chemistry department, has developed a new type of experiment which enabled them to assess two things:The experiments performed by Yosef Alkoby, a PhD student in the group, used magnetic fields to control the rotational quantum states of hydrogen molecules before and after colliding with the surface of a salt crystal.

A quantum mechanical simulation, developed by Dr. Helen Chadwick, was used to extract the scattering matrix from the measurement. This is a detailed descriptor which reveals exactly how rotation orientation affects the collision and how the collision changes the way the molecules rotate.

Until now, scattering matrices could only be estimated from theoretical calculations. In their new paper, the Swansea team have demonstrated for the first time an experimental determination of a scattering matrix, opening up new opportunities for studying and modelling molecule-surface interactions.

Key findings were:Professor Gil Alexandrowicz of Swansea University College of Science, lead researcher, said:

"Our research reports a new type of molecule-surface collision experiment. We examined the orientation of a rotating ground-state molecule approaching a surface and how this changes the collision event.

Being able to model the outcome of a molecule-surface collision yields valuable insights for many fields of study. Yet even modelling the simplest molecule, H2, with a metal surface accurately still presents a significant challenge.

To develop accurate models, it is crucial to have results from fundamental surface-science experiments to benchmark theoretical descriptions against.

Our results provide a new and particularly sensitive bench mark for theory development, as the ability to calculate the collision and successfully reproduce the experimentally determined scattering matrix, requires a particularly accurate model for the molecule-surface interaction. "
The research has been published in Nature Communications.


Animation: Two molecules approach a surface. The red one is rotating like a helicopter with respect to the surface and the green one is rotating like a cart wheel. Researchers at Swansea University have shown that the orientation of the molecule is important in determining what happens in the collision. The two molecules will interact differently with the surface atoms and electrons, experience different forces and have a different probability to scatter, adsorb or decompose.

Laboratory where new experiments on molecule-surface interactions were conducted: Swansea University researchers have demonstrated for the first time an experimental determination of a scattering matrix, opening up new opportunities for studying and modelling molecule-surface interactions.

Notes to editors:

The new research is published in Nature Communications: "Setting benchmarks for modelling gas-surface interactions using coherent control of rotational orientation states."

Previous research by Prof Alexandrowicz and colleagues outlining a new scientific technique which allows to both control and measure the rotational states of ground state (unexcited) molecules using magnetic fields https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms15357 ) .

Swansea University is a world-class, research-led, dual campus university offering a first-class student experience and has one of the best employability rates of graduates in the UK. The University has the highest possible rating for teaching - the Gold rating in the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) in 2018 and was commended for its high proportions of students achieving consistently outstanding outcomes.

Swansea climbed 14 places to 31st in the Guardian University Guide 2019, making us Wales' top ranked university, with one of the best success rates of graduates gaining employment in the UK and the same overall satisfaction level as the Number 1 ranked university.

The 2014 Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014 results saw Swansea make the 'biggest leap among research-intensive institutions' in the UK (Times Higher Education, December 2014) and achieved its ambition to be a top 30 research University, soaring up the league table to 26th in the UK.

The University is in the top 300 best universities in the world, ranked in the 251-300 group in The Times Higher Education World University rankings 2018. Swansea University now has 23 main partners, awarding joint degrees and post-graduate qualifications.

The University was established in 1920 and was the first campus university in the UK. It currently offers around 350 undergraduate courses and 350 postgraduate courses to circa 20,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students. The University has ambitious expansion plans as it moves towards its centenary in 2020 and aims to continue to extend its global reach and realise its domestic and international potential.

Swansea University is a registered charity. No.1138342. Visit http://www.swansea.ac.uk

For more information:

Kevin Sullivan, Swansea University Public Relations Office k.g.sullivan@swansea.ac.uk

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