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Radboud University scientists have developed synthetic molecules that resemble real organic molecules. A collaboration of researchers, led by Alex Khajetoorians and Daniel Wegner, can now simulate the behavior of real molecules using artificial molecules. In this way, they can change the properties of molecules in ways that are usually difficult or unrealistic, and can much better understand how molecules change.
Their article is published in the magazine Science.
Emil Sierda, who was in charge of conducting the experiments at Radboud University, said: ‘A few years ago we had this crazy idea of building a quantum simulator. We wanted to create artificial molecules that look like real molecules. So we developed a system where we can trapping electrons. Electrons surround a molecule like a cloud, and we’ve used those trapped electrons to build an artificial molecule.” The results the team found were startling. Sierda says, “The similarity between what we built and actual molecules was eerie.”
Alex Khajetoorians, head of the scanning probe microscopy (SPM) department at Radboud University’s Institute for Molecules and Materials, said: ‘Making molecules is hard enough. What is often more difficult is understanding how certain molecules react. , such as how they change when they are distorted or altered.”
The way molecules change and react is the basis of chemistry and leads to chemical reactions, such as the formation of water from hydrogen and oxygen. “We wanted to simulate molecules, so that we have the ultimate toolkit to bend and tune them in ways that are nearly impossible with real molecules. This way we can say something about real molecules, without creating them or having to deal with the challenges they present. like their ever-changing shape.”
Using this simulator, the researchers created an artificial version of one of the basic organic molecules in chemistry, benzene. Benzene is the first component of a number of chemicals, such as styrene, that are used to make polystyrene. Khajetoorians says, “By making benzene, we simulated a textbook organic molecule and built a molecule composed of elements that are not organic.” Plus, the molecules are 10 times larger than their real-life counterparts, making them easier to work with.
The uses of this new technique are endless. Daniel Wegner, an assistant professor within the SPM department, says, “We’ve only begun to imagine what we can use it for. We have so many ideas that it’s hard to decide where to start.” Using the simulator, scientists can have a much better understanding of molecules and their reactions, which will help in every scientific field imaginable.
Wegner adds: “New materials for future computer hardware are really hard to make, for example. By making a simulated version, we can look for the new properties and functions of some molecules and evaluate whether the real material is worth making.”
In the distant future, all sorts of things could be possible: understanding chemical reactions step-by-step like in a slow-motion video, or making single-molecule artificial electronic devices, like shrinking the size of a transistor on a computer chip. Quantum simulators are even suggested to work like quantum computers. Sierda says, “But that’s a long way to go. For now, we can start by starting to understand molecules in a way we’ve never understood before.”
E. Sierda et al, quantum simulator to emulate the molecular structure of lower dimensions, Science (2023). DOI: 10.1126/science.adf2685. www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.adf2685
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