Discovery may help find new ways to innovate with light

Friday 22 June 2018

The Australian National University (ANU) has contributed to a ground-breaking discovery that promises to help revolutionise the science behind the next generation of light-harvesting technologies, including potential new ways to generate solar power.

Scientists have, for the first time, detected a photo-chemical reaction at the molecular scale both in time and space. Such reactions are involved in vision and photosynthesis.

Co-researcher Professor Anatoli Kheifets from ANU said the importance of the team’s discovery, led by ETH Zurich in Switzerland in collaboration with ANU and other institutions in Germany and Switzerland, was hard to overestimate.  

“We have taken the first step towards one day being able to control and manipulate chemical reactions that are critical to vision and photosynthesis,” said Professor Kheifets from the ANU Research School of Physics and Engineering.

“We could potentially be able to better mimic nature’s superior ability to convert sunlight into energy or find a way to prevent X-ray exposure leading to mutations to human cells that can cause cancer.

“There’s still much more scientific work to be done in this field before such technological advances can be achieved, but I think we are well on the way with this exciting discovery.” 

The study provides a complete experimental characterisation of Albert Einstein’s Nobel-Prize work on the photoelectric effect.

“Scientists assumed that this effect involved the smallest unit of energy being transferred to an atom or a molecule, which then led to the liberation of an electron from its regular bound orbit,” Professor Kheifets said.

“The process was thought to be instantaneous and spread across the whole atomic or molecular system, but for a long time there was no way to pinpoint it in time or space.”

The new study, which is published in Science, used an electron detector on each side of the molecule to show the timing and spatial arrangement of the electron’s release.

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