Scientists at the University of Sydney have made a revolutionary advance in chemistry by directly observing a crucial chemical reaction process using a quantum computer. By slowing down the process 100 billion times, the researchers were able to observe the interference pattern that occurs when a single atom interacts with a common geometric structure called a “conical intersection.” This discovery opened up new possibilities in materials science, drug development and solar energy harvesting.
Understanding the phenomenon of conical intersection
Conical intersections play a critical role in fast photochemical processes such as light harvesting in human vision and photosynthesis. However, direct observation of these geometric processes is challenging because of their extremely fast time scales. Chemists have been trying unsuccessfully to observe these processes since the 1950s.
Quantum process researchers from the School of Physics and the School of Chemistry at the University of Sydney designed an experiment that used a quantum computer with trapped ions in a unique way. This allowed them to transfer the solution to a complex problem to a relatively small quantum device and slow down the process by a factor of 100 billion. The results of the study are published Aug. 28 in the journal Nature Chemistry.
Time Slowdown: From femtoseconds to milliseconds
In nature, these chemical processes occur within femtoseconds, which is equivalent to one quadrillionth of a second. Using a quantum computer, researchers were able to extend this time frame from femtoseconds to milliseconds, allowing for meaningful observations and measurements that were previously impossible.
Dr. Christophe Valahoo, one of the lead authors of the paper from the School of Physics, explained that by using quantum technology, they were able to directly observe the dynamics of the “geometric phase.” He compared his experiment to modeling airflow around an airplane wing in a wind tunnel. This observation was not a numerical approximation, but a direct analog of quantum dynamics unfolding at an observable speed.
Unraveling the mysteries of photochemical reactions
Photochemical reactions, such as photosynthesis, involve lightning-fast energy transfer between molecules. During these reactions, conical junctions – regions of exchange – are formed. A study by scientists at the University of Sydney has slowed down these dynamics in a quantum computer and revealed the predicted distinctive features associated with conical intersections in photochemistry.
Implications for materials science, drug development and solar energy harvesting
Understanding the fundamental processes that occur within and between molecules allows scientists to discover new opportunities in a variety of fields. Materials science, drug development and solar energy harvesting can all benefit from this breakthrough. The ability to observe and manipulate chemical reactions at such a detailed level holds the promise of creating more efficient materials, developing new drugs and improving processes based on the interaction of molecules with light.
Dr. Valahoo emphasized the importance of the research, stating, “This has never been done before.” The ability to observe and understand chemical dynamics at such a precise level has the potential to revolutionize many scientific disciplines.