For the first time, scientists have observed how molecules change direction after slow collisions with atoms. Researchers from Radboud University Nijmegen and the FOM Foundation allowed molecules to collide with atoms very slowly. This enabled them to zoom in on the essence of a collision for the first time. How do the initial conditions of particles transform into the final conditions after a collision? The results will be published in the journal Science on 13 November 2015. It is the group's third Science publication in four years.
According to the rules of quantum mechanics, a molecule often behaves as a series of waves. When a molecule collides with an atom, many different waves play a role in the interaction. These waves interfere during the collision and can give rise to a diffraction pattern. For years, scientists have been trying to map the influence of a single wave in such a collision. It is fundamentally impossible to experimentally select a single wave and study its influence on a collision process. However, at very low temperatures, when molecules collide very slowly, this suddenly becomes possible under specific circumstances: during a so-called 'scattering resonance', a single wave suddenly dominates the collision process. In such a case, it becomes possible to study precisely how a single wave before the collision determines the wave character of the particles after the collision. This is the essence of a collision at the most fundamental level: how do the starting conditions of particles transform into the final conditions after a collision?
Resonant collision influences subsequent flight direction
'We can now determine this by measuring the change in the molecules' flight direction during slow collisions,' says research leader Bas van de Meerakker, whose awards include an ERC Starting Grant in 2013. 'When the molecules collide slightly too quickly or too slowly, we observe a normal diffraction pattern of waves. However, if they have exactly the right velocity and hit a resonance, the change in direction is suddenly very different. A resonance can be conceived as a collision in which the particles briefly orbit around each other before separating and flying off in entirely different directions.' The experimental measurements agree exactly with quantum mechanical calculations made by theoretical chemists Gerrit Groenenboom and Ad van der Avoird, co-authors of the article. With the help of their theory, the researchers can now precisely determine which waves play a role during a scattering resonance and how these waves influence the molecules' change in flight direction.
The Cold and Controlled Collisions laboratory at Radboud University Nijmegen has a Stark decelerator that the researchers can use to precisely control the velocity of the molecules before a collision. After a collision, they can accurately record the molecules' change in flight direction using the velocity map imaging method. This combination of techniques is only available at Radboud University Nijmegen. Thanks to this unique experiment, the researchers were able to observe these changes in the molecules' flight direction during a scattering resonance for the first time.
Cite This Page: