Physicists Forge Impossible Molecule That Chemists Failed To Make

Triangulene, a near-mythical molecule, represented here in 3D. Niko Pavilcek/IBM Research

There’s a bunch of physicists out there that are feeling a little bit pleased with themselves right now, and no wonder – they may have just made all of chemistry redundant. Okay, that’s not really true, but they’ve certainly beat chemistry researchers at their own game.

You see, a team of IBM physicists have managed to forge a new type of molecule, named “triangulene”, that chemistry researchers have been long hoping to synthesize themselves. This suggests that physical processes can be used to make molecules that are essentially impossible to make any other way.

This particular molecule is, unsurprisingly, triangular shaped. Certain triangular-shaped molecules are fairly rare due to a phenomenon known as “ring strain.” The tight angles of their molecular bonds mean that they are often highly reactive, and don’t last long in a wide range of environments. in this case, though, the molecule has a pesky pair of unpaired electrons that make it highly unstable.

Triangulene has been hypothesized to exist by chemistry acolytes for several years now, as a single-atom layer of carbon with the triangular shape being formed from smaller hexagon forms – but no conventional chemical process seemed to be able to create a stable version of it.

Enter IBM, who decided to use a device that could manipulate atoms on an electron scale. First, as reported in the journal Nature Nanotechnology, they nabbed a precursor molecule from chemists in the UK. This molecule looks a lot like triangulene, but it came with two additional hydrogen atoms.

A sketch of triangulene imposed onto the image of the real deal. IBM Research

They placed this precursor on a range of copper and insulating plates, and used a combination of carbon monoxide and gold to probe the molecule – on the smallest of scales – using a unique atomic imaging device.

This device had previously been used to look at weird molecules like olympicene, one that’s shaped like the official logo of the Olympics. Although the images are blurry, individual atomic bonds can be seen.

The device uses changing voltages to “poke” around the molecule by interacting directly with its electrons. The interaction allows the researchers to view its intricate structure, but the team wondered if they could also use it to actually change the chemistry of the molecule itself.

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