Scientists create artificial molecules that look like real molecules

Radboud University scientists have created synthetic molecules that mimic real organic molecules. A collaboration of researchers led by Alex Hajetorians and Daniel Wegner can now simulate the behavior of real molecules using artificial molecules. In this way, they can change the properties of molecules in ways that are usually difficult or unrealistic, and have a much better understanding of how molecules change.

“A few years ago we had a crazy idea to build a quantum simulator,” says Emil Sierda, who is responsible for running the experiments at Radboud University. We wanted to make artificial molecules that looked like real molecules. So we created a system that captures electrons. Electrons surround the molecule like a cloud, and we used those trapped electrons to create an artificial molecule.’ The results the team found were surprising. “The similarity between what we created and the actual molecules was striking,” Sierda said.

Changes in molecules

Alex Hajetorians, Head of Scanning Probe Microscopy (SPM) at Radboud University’s Institute of Molecules and Materials, said: “Molecules are very difficult to make. What is often more difficult is understanding how particular molecules behave, for example how they change when they twist or change.’ How molecules change and interact is the basis of chemistry and leads to chemical reactions such as the formation of water from hydrogen and oxygen. “We wanted to simulate molecules so we would have the ultimate toolkit for bending them and tuning them in ways that are impossible with real molecules. In this way we can talk about real molecules without making them or having to deal with difficulties such as their ever-changing shape.’


Using this simulator, the researchers created an artificial version of benzene, one of the key organic molecules in chemistry. Benzene is a starting component of many chemicals, such as styrene, which is used to make polystyrene. Hajeturians: “By making benzene, we modeled the organic molecule in the textbook and built a molecule composed of inorganic elements.” What’s more: the molecules are 10 times larger than their real counterparts, which makes them easier to work with.

Practical applications

The uses of this new technique are endless. Daniel Wegner, associate professor at SPM, said: “We started to imagine what we could use this for. We have so many ideas it’s hard to decide where to start.’ By using a simulator, scientists gain a much better understanding of molecules and their reactions, which can help in any scientific field. “For example, it is very difficult to develop new materials for future computer hardware,” Wegner said. By creating a simulation version, we can look for new properties and functionality of certain molecules and assess whether it is worth making a real material.’ In the future, all sorts of things may be possible: understanding chemical reactions step-by-step, like in slow-motion video, or making artificial single-molecule electronic devices, like shrinking the size of a transistor on a computer chip. Quantum simulators are even proposed to be implemented as quantum computers. “But it’s a long way to go until we can begin to understand molecules in a way we’ve never understood before,” Cierda said.

The research was carried out by a collaboration between the groups of Malte Rösner (condensed matter theory), Mikhail Katsnelson (condensed matter theory), Gerrit Groenenboom (theoretical chemistry), Daniel Wegner (SPM) and Alex Hajetorians (SPM) at Radboud University.

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