How fast is an electron? Australian scientists were able to measure it. Australia's fastest camera, located at the Attosecond Science Facility, has revealed the time it takes for molecules to break apart. The experimental research, conducted by Griffith University's Centre for Quantum Dynamics, aims to help in the design of new molecules for materials science or drug discovery.

The graphic indicates the time evolution of the dissociating nuclear wave packets, where the overlaid white dashed line is a linear fit for the peak of the dissociating packets.

Scientists at the facility have been able to measure, in real-time, the time that it took and the separation distance of two atoms when the bond was broken in the simplest diatomic molecule. The result is 15 femtoseconds (10-15 seconds) at a distance of 0.5 nanometers. The molecule was made of two protons and one electron that they shared.

That electron sharing is responsible for the chemical bond that binds the protons together to form the molecule. The scientists made that molecule dissociate and observed how soon the electron would ‘decide’ at which proton it will remain. That is called ‘electron localization’ or loss of sharing and it signifies a breakage of a chemical bond.

“This allows us to start thinking about how we might engineer a new molecule and is a stepping stone towards looking at that type of reality, particularly in areas like drug discovery,” said research leader Igor Litvinyuk. “It's pretty amazing you can do measurements on this sort of timescale. We can even observe processes which are faster than that.”

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