Complex molecules are held together by a variety of covalent connections. It is possible to make both single and double bonds with atoms such as carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen by sharing two or four electrons. Carbon and nitrogen share six electrons, making it possible for them to create a three-bond structure. And they are just a few of the more straightforward examples. There can be a problem with a mixture of single and double bonds, as those found in benzene, when each of the bonds has an odd number of electrons.
Because of this, the exact strength of the bonds is highly dependent on the surrounding molecule. There is a wealth of information available about these bonds. We could quantify their energy, conduct chemical reactions, and even visualise the structure of a crystalized population of molecules in order to discern the difference in binding strength. In the meanwhile, a group of European scientists has developed a new method for determining the strength of chemical interactions within a single molecule using a modified type of atomic force microscopy.
It appears that the laws of covalent bonding are straightforward. The stronger the relationship, the more electrons are shared. If a connection is strong, the atoms on each end of it are more likely to be in close proximity to one other. When single and double bonds are present, the electrons might get dispersed, which complicates matters further. With six carbon atoms in a circle, connected by three single bonds and three double bonds, the most basic form of this compound is the benzene ring. Because each atom is now connected by 1.5 bonds instead of one or two, you may regard the bonds to be comparable.
With additional single and double bonds surrounding it, things get much more complicated when it comes to benzene rings buried in bigger molecules. There are five- and six-atom rings that are joined to each other by the five and six carbon atoms that make up the buckyball. The six-atom rings feature alternating bonds similar to those seen in benzene, but the five-atom rings are all connected by single bonds. Benzene rings, pentagons, and multiple atoms can coexist in the same molecule.
There are relatively modest changes in energy and distance between nearby atoms when fractional shared electrons are used instead of neat 1.5 bonds.
All of this adds to the challenge of spotting the difference. A needle with a single atom as a tip is used in standard atomic force microscopy to investigate the electrical state of a molecule or surface. Bond length discrepancies can’t be discerned because of the low resolution of the instrument. But the researchers behind the current work utilised a modified version in which the needle’s tip protrudes two more atoms because the carbon monoxide molecular cap covers the single atom.
This proved to be really important. A number of samples are likely to have a variation in bond length that is at or below the atomic force microscopy’s highest resolution. The carbon monoxide molecule can stretch out of the way when the tip is forced down, a behaviour that appears to enhance the bond length. Thus, they were able to distinguish between bonds that varied by just 0.03 Angstroms (3.0 10-12 metres) in accuracy.
Using an image of a buckyball, the team was able to distinguish between rings with five and six members. On to more difficult ones, like the one seen above.
It’s not just a technically astounding feat, but it might lead to a wide range of possibilities. Molecules that are difficult to crystallise might be seen using this approach; researchers could introduce electrons or examine chemical conditions in a single molecule using this method. That all might help us better understand how we use many of the everyday elements we rely on, such as catalysts for chemical processes.