Specifically, the research team witnessed the interference pattern of a single atom caused by a common geometric structure in chemistry called a ‘conical intersection’.
Conical intersections are known throughout chemistry and are vital to rapid photo-chemical processes such as light harvesting in human vision or photosynthesis.
Chemists have tried to directly observe such geometric processes in chemical dynamics since the 1950s, but it is not feasible to observe them directly given the extremely rapid timescales involved.
To get around this problem, quantum researchers in the School of Physics and the School of Chemistry created an experiment using a trapped-ion quantum computer in a completely new way. This allowed them to design and map this very complicated problem onto a relatively small quantum device – and then slow the process down by a factor of 100 billion.
Their research findings are published today in Nature Chemistry.
“In nature, the whole process is over within femtoseconds,” said Ms Olaya Agudelo from the School of Chemistry. “That’s a billionth of a millionth – or one quadrillionth – of a second.”
“Using our quantum computer, we built a system that allowed us to slow down the chemical dynamics from femtoseconds to milliseconds. This allowed us to make meaningful observations and measurements.
“This has never been done before.”