New process for producing slow electrons could improve radiation damage research and chemical reactions

An international team of researchers, led by Professor Ruth Signorell from ETH Zurich, embarked on a mission to detect a peculiar chemical entity known as a dielectron in a solution. Unlike atoms, dielectrons consist solely of two electrons without a nucleus. Despite previous difficulties in directly detecting dielectrons, the team accidentally stumbled upon a novel process for generating slow electrons during their dielectron experiments. These slow electrons can be utilized to initiate specific chemical reactions.

Dielectrons are inherently unstable and swiftly disintegrate into two separate electrons within a fraction of a trillionth of a second. However, the researchers discovered that one of the electrons remains stationary, while the other—characterized by its low energy and sluggishness—moves away. The significant aspect of this newfound method lies in the researchers’ ability to regulate the kinetic energy and speed of this electron.

To produce dielectrons, the team dissolved sodium in liquid ammonia and exposed the solution to ultraviolet (UV) light. As a consequence of this exposure, an electron from an ammonia molecule combines with an electron from a sodium atom, leading to the formation of a dielectron. This dielectron temporarily occupies a minuscule cavity within the solution. The researchers successfully demonstrated that when the dielectron disintegrates, one of the electrons departs at a velocity determined by the wavelength of the UV light employed. Professor Signorell explains that “some of the UV light energy has been transferred to the electron.”

This study, published in Science, was conducted in collaboration with researchers from the University of Freiburg in Germany, the SOLEIL synchrotron in France, and Auburn University in the United States.

Slow electrons possess intriguing properties that make them valuable for various applications. One such application lies in the realm of radiation damage inflicted upon human tissue by slow electrons. For instance, mobile electrons may form within the tissue due to X-rays or radioactivity. These mobile electrons can subsequently attach themselves to DNA molecules and induce chemical reactions. Simplifying the production of slow electrons within a laboratory setting will enable researchers to delve deeper into the mechanisms underlying radiation damage.

Chemical reactions induced by the acceptance of a free electron are not limited to the human body alone. The production of synthetic cortisone and other steroids serves as a prime example. By facilitating the use of UV light as a relatively straightforward method for directly generating slow electrons within a solution while simultaneously controlling the energy of the electrons, researchers can more effectively investigate these reactions in the future. Furthermore, chemists might be able to optimize reactions by employing UV light to enhance the kinetic energy of electrons.

In summary, an international research team’s primary objective was to detect dielectrons in solution, an elusive chemical entity consisting of two electrons. During their investigations, the team fortuitously discovered a novel technique for producing slow electrons, which can initiate specific chemical reactions. This breakthrough not only allows for the controlled manipulation of electron speed but also provides opportunities for studying radiation damage in human tissue and optimizing various chemical reactions, including the production of cortisone and other steroids.

Source: ETH Zurich

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