ONR-funded researcher wins Nobel Prize in chemistry

October 14, 1999

U.S. scientist Ahmed Zewail received the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his revolutionary work in studying chemical reactions with rapid-fire laser pulses. The technique gives scientists the ability to freeze frame molecular reactions with ultrafast "snapshots" that reveal exactly how molecules and atoms bond together and break apart.

"This is the most fundamental type of work that ONR funds," said ONR Program Officer Judah Goldwasser. "Until now, most synthetic chemistry has been developed empirically, through trial-and-error. Scientists predict how a given molecule will behave in a given environment based on analogous scenarios. Scientists now have a tool to determine exactly how chemical reactions occur."

In 1997, Zewail, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, received a five-year, $1.3M basic research grant from the Office of Naval Research to map out the decomposition pathways of molecules being considered by the military for use in propellants and explosives. To be of use to the Navy, these materials must be energetic and safe. The new understanding of chemical reactions made possible by Zewail's work will allow scientists to understand exactly what is happening during detonations and slow burns. It will ultimately allow them to design new molecules for specific purposes without having to do extensive trial-and-error experiments.

Zewail's revolutionary research has led to a new field of science known as femtochemistry -- the ability to monitor chemical reactions on the femtosecond timescale. A femotsecond equals one millionth of a billionth of a second, making the rapid-fire laser pulse technique a "camera" with the fastest "shutter speed" on the planet.

Molecular bonds vibrate at a particular frequency. With femtochemistry, scientists can view atoms at their vibrational frequency or faster. "Never before have we been able to take a snapshot faster than atoms can move," Goldwasser said. "Ahmed Zewail's laser technique eliminates the need for conjecture. We can now see exactly what happens at the atomic level during a chemical reaction." Goldwasser predicts that the benefits of femtochemistry will filter into more focused Navy research, such as designing new propellents for missiles.
The Office of Naval Research pursues an integrated science and technology program from basic research through manufacturing technologies. Research areas include oceanography; advanced materials; sensors; electronics; surveillance; mine countermeasures; weapons; and surface ship, submarine and aircraft technologies. For more information about ONR programs, refer to the ONR home page at http://www.onr.navy.mil on the World Wide Web.

Office of Naval Research

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