If you aren’t familiar with the term femtochemistry, it is a fascinating field of study that analyzes chemical reactions on the atomic level but on incredibly short timescales. The femtosecond refers to a length of time that is approximately 10 to the -15 power, of a second. Scientists and researchers are using femtoseconds to analyze how atoms in molecules rearrange themselves to form new molecules so that they can observe all of the intricacies of the movement of the atoms involved in that reaction.


The first research regarding the observation of movement atoms within molecules within a femtosecond began with scientist Ahmed Hassan Zewail in 1999. With his research, Zewail won the Nobel Prize that year for his extensive research and groundbreaking studies, which indicated that we could see how molecules move during a chemical reaction, using flashes of laser light.

What is the Significance?

Many publications have talked about the viability of being able to control chemical reactions with the methods innovated by Zewail, but all of that conjecture remains widely controversial. The one thing that we do know from the research that we have from study atoms and molecules using this method to observe reactions that occur on the attosecond and femtosecond timescale, we can see the formation of intermediary products. In essence, we can see the products that are formed in the intermediary phases of the chemical reaction. Analyzing chemical reactions within a femtosecond have allowed us to see and study new molecules, which we couldn’t normally observe by examining the initial and end products of a chemical reaction.

How is this Observed?

The method that makes this level of study possible is a common technique known as pump-probe spectroscopy. The relatively simple method uses optical pulses on a varied time delay to expose what has happening during the midpoints of a chemical reaction so that we can more closely observe what happens during the exchanging of atoms.

The first pulse is used to start the reaction between the two molecules by either breaking the bond between the two of them or exciting the reactants within the test. The second pulse is used to capture the progress of the reaction at a particular midpoint to record what is happening. As the reaction changes in contents, the system that is reacting to the pulse will change. By consistently analyzing the time delay between the first and second pulses, we can start to reconstruct or reframe what happens during the progress of a reaction, in a frame by frame manner.

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