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Investigating the Fundamental Mechanisms of Chemical Reactions

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has awarded a research grant worth £6 million over five years to a team of academics from the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry and colleagues from the University of Oxford.

The consortium comprises Professor Andrew Orr-Ewing, Professor Mike Ashfold, Professor Jeremy Harvey and Dr Fred Manby from the School of Chemistry, and six colleagues – Professor Gus Hancock, Professor Tim Softley, Professor David Clary FRS, Professor Mark Brouard, Dr Claire Vallance and Dr Grant Ritchie – from the University of Oxford. The grant, entitled ‘New horizons in chemical and photochemical dynamics’, will enable the team to carry out experimental and theoretical investigations of the fundamental mechanisms by which chemical reactions occur.

Chemical change, whether caused by collisions between atoms and molecules, or by the absorption of light (photochemistry), is of vital importance in many branches of science, including chemistry and the life sciences. A deep understanding of even the simplest chemical reactions remains, however, a considerable challenge because of the way atoms and molecules move and form chemical bonds. Currently most chemical experiments are carried out using solutions, but the presence of a solvent is a further complication when trying to unravel exactly how the electrons rearrange and the atoms move during a chemical reaction. Experiments on molecules in the gas phase avoid the complications associated with a solvent, but are also challenging, requiring vacuum chambers to prevent too many collisions with other molecules, and lasers to probe the motions of the atoms. Computer-based simulations of chemical reactions must also focus on a limited number of atoms to keep the calculations within the bounds imposed by current theoretical methods and available computer power.

The main objective of the new project is to improve on these current techniques by working with bigger molecules than previously and by studying mechanisms of chemical reactions in solution. The experimental techniques needed to do this include methods for imaging the movement of atoms and molecules, and use of ultrashort (less than a trillionth of a second) laser pulses to capture information on these movements in real time. Theoretical work will map out the energies along a reaction pathway and how the presence of solvent molecules changes these energies.

Professor Andrew Orr-Ewing, Principal Investigator of the consortium, said: ‘This is one of the first EPSRC Programme Grants to be awarded in chemistry and provides a tremendous opportunity for the Bristol and Oxford consortium to make real advances in our understanding of chemical reaction mechanisms.’

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