Chemical reactions occur all around us all the time. They’re really fast because the molecules move so fast. But as you drop the temperature, these same molecules begin to slow down.
Not particularly noticeably at first … the bigger thing you’ll notice is the reactions happen less frequently (the rate of reaction decreases) because there’s less heat energy around to kickstart the chemistry. However for the reactions that do still occur, they’re over and done with at just about the same pace as ever.
If you watch it, it’s reactants, reactants, reactants, just sitting there and in a blink of an eye, they’re now products. Completely transformed, yet we miss it every time.
A group of researchers at Harvard built a brand-new apparatus that cools things down to far, far colder than outer space, and that means they can force atoms that wouldn’t normally react into a position where they do react. But this apparatus was also cold enough that it slowed the reactants to the point where the actual reaction took place over microseconds (far slower than normal, and definitely enough to be picked up on very sensitive instruments).
With this new ability to “watch” chemical reactions, the team hopes to be able to test theories relating to the quantum chemistry occurring within a chemical reaction. They also anticipate being able to very precisely manipulate the atoms before or during a reaction phase to see what happens then. And they can also play around with the amount of energy present in the reaction- testing whether adding or removing energy affects the result or changes what we understand about quantum chemistry.
In any case, it’s very exciting!