Scientists have measured the shortest unit of time ever: the time it takes a light particle to cross a hydrogen molecule.
That time for the record is 247 zeptose seconds. A zeptose second is one trillionth of a billionth of a second or a decimal point followed by 20 zeros and a 1.
Previously, researchers had dipped into zeptose seconds; in 2016, researchers reported in the journal Natural physics used lasers to measure time in steps down to 850 zeptose seconds.
This accuracy is a huge leap from the 1999 Nobel Prize-winning work, which first measured time in femtoseconds, which is one-millionth of a billionth of a second.
It takes femtoseconds before chemical bonds break and form, but it takes zeptose seconds for light to travel over a single hydrogen molecule (H2).
To measure this very short journey, physicist Reinhard Dörner from Goethe University in Germany and his colleagues shot X-rays of PETRA III at the Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), a particle accelerator in Hamburg.
The scientists put the energy from the X-rays so that a single photon or a particle of light knocked the two electrons out of the hydrogen molecule. (A hydrogen molecule consists of two protons and two electrons.) The photon jumped one electron out of the molecule and then the other, a bit like a rock jumping over the top of a pond.
These interactions created a wave pattern called an interference pattern that Dörner and his colleagues could measure with a tool called a Cold Target Recoil Ion Momentum Spectroscopy (COLTRIMS) reaction microscope. This tool is essentially a highly sensitive particle detector that can detect extremely fast atomic and molecular reactions.
The COLTRIMS microscope recorded both the interference pattern and the position of the hydrogen molecule through the interaction.
“Knowing the spatial orientation of the hydrogen molecule, we used the interference between the two electron waves to calculate exactly when the photon reached the first and when it reached the second hydrogen atom,”
That time? Two hundred and forty-seven zeptose seconds, with some torsional space depending on the distance between hydrogen atoms inside the molecule at the exact time the photon is winged off. The measurement is essentially to capture the speed of light in the molecule.
IMAGE: A light particle, called a photon (yellow arrow), produces electron waves out of an electron cloud (gray) of a hydrogen molecule (red: nucleus). The result of these interactions is what is called an interference pattern (violet-white). The interference pattern is slightly skewed to the right, so scientists can calculate the time for the photon to get from one atom to the next.
“We observed for the first time that the electron shell of a molecule does not respond to light anywhere at the same time,” Dörner said in the statement. “The time delay occurs because information within the molecule only propagates at the speed of light.”
The results were detailed October 16 in the journal Science.
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