Using a specially designed X-ray laser, researchers have managed to photograph what happens when molecules bind to or unbind from the surface of a catalyst. The findings may be an important step in the development of new forms of renewable energy.
Petrol, plastic bowls, cream, rain jackets, cleaning products, fertilisers, biofuels, beer, plastic bags, water bottles…
Lots of everyday objects are made with catalysts – a substance that helps activate chemical reactions without being converted or used in the reaction.
But how do these catalysts actually work?
A research group has now, as the first one ever, captured photographs of what happens when molecules bind to or unbind from the surface of a catalyst.
”We found that the molecules can, for an extremely short period, be in a special state, which is located farther away from the catalyst surface than we had expected,” says Jens Nørskov, a Danish professor of Chemical Engineering at Stanford University, US, who is one of the researchers behind the new study.
“A vast majority of chemical processes are controlled by catalysts, which is why it is absolutely crucial that we understand how they work.”
Since the chemical process is extremely fast, the researchers needed a special instrument – a so-called free-electron X-ray laser.
“The instrument is an unbelievable piece of engineering and it is the first one of its kind in the world. A linear accelerator stretches three kilometres up into the mountains behind me here at Stanford University.”
In this long accelerator, electrons are accelerated in a special way that makes them emit strong X-ray radiation. This radiation can be used as a type of camera, which can take pictures of tiny molecules with extremely short time intervals.
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