Father of Femtochemistry: Ahmed Zewail

Every once in a while I’ll come across an article or news piece that falls outside my natural interests but is so fascinating that it becomes worth sharing with a wider audience.  Here’s a little bit about what I learned about femtoseconds and femtochemistry.  And you thought Usain Bolt was quick….

Femtochemistry, a word coined by Nobel Prize winner Dr. Ahmed Zewail, describes the field of chemistry that studies the making and breaking of chemical bonds.  Chemical bonds are the glue which actually holds atons together.  Actually understanding these bonds gives scientists a better understanding of how chemical reactions take place.  And understanding how chemical reactions take place may allow scientists to manipulate these bonds insuch a way as to create entirely new molecules.  az

However, to actually study these bonds taking place (or being destryoed) needs a camera. A fast one. An extremely fast one.  One so fast that it could take stop-action pictures of two atoms approaching each other and forming a chemical bond.  How fast is that? A few hundred femtoseconds.  And what’s a femtosecond?  Fast. One femtosecond is one millionth of one billionth of a second.  For example, if you moved at the speed of light for one femtosecond, you’d only travel 30 micrometers, or 0.0012 inches.  In fact, a femtosecond is so quick (or short) that light couldn’t even get a third of the way across a human hair.

So Dr. Ahmed created a camera quick enough to “photograph” these chemical binds taking place. Now working at Caltech, Dr. Ahmed and other scientists are studying various biological systems, such as how oxygen binds to hemoglobin in the blood or how retinal in the eye triggers excitation of the optical nerve to create vision.  Dr. Ahmed’s current research is looking into how his work in femtochemistry can create new disease treatments and even prevention.

For more information on Dr. Ahmed Zewail and his work read this article on at the Saudi Aramco World website.