Scientists have measured the shortest unit of time ever: the time it takes a tiny particle to cross a hydrogen Molecules
That time, for the record, is 247 zeptoseconds. A zeptosecond is a trillion of a billion of a second, or a decimal point followed by 21 zeroes and a 1. Previously, researchers have sunk into the field of zeptoseconds; in 2016, researchers report in the journal Nature Physics lasers were used to measure time in increments up to 850 zeptoseconds. This accuracy is a huge leap from the work of the Nobel Prize winner in 1999 that first measured time in femtoseconds, which is about one billionth of a billion seconds.
Femtoseconds need to break down and form chemical bonds, but it takes zeptoseconds for light to travel to a single hydrogen molecule (H2). To measure this short trip, physicist Reinhard Dörner of Goethe University in Germany and his colleagues shot at him. X-ray from PETRA III to Deutsches Elektronen-Synchrotron (DESY), a particle accelerator in Hamburg.
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The researchers determined the energy of the X-rays so that a single photon, or particle of light, would knock on two electrons from the hydrogen molecule. (A hydrogen molecule consists of two protons and two electrons.) The photon bounces on one electron out of the molecule, and then the other, somewhat like a pebble that jumps to the top of a pond. These interactions create a wave pattern called a distraction pattern, which Dörner and his colleagues can measure with a tool called a Cold Target Recoil Ion Momentum Spectroscopy reaction microscope ( COLTRIMS). This tool is essentially a sensitive particle detector that can record very fast atomic and molecular reactions. The COLTRIMS microscope recorded both the disruption pattern and the position of the hydrogen molecule throughout the interaction.
“Because we know the spatial orientation of the hydrogen molecule, we used the interference of two electron waves to accurately calculate when the photon reached the first and when the second hydrogen atom was reached,”; said Sven Grundmann, a University study coauthor of Rostock in Germany, said in a statement.
That time? Twenty-seven zeptoseconds, with some chambers dependent on the distance between the hydrogen atoms within the molecule at the precise moment of the photon wing. It is important to measure the speed of light within a molecule.
“We observed for the first time that the electron shell in a molecule does not respond to light anywhere at the same time,” Dörner said in the statement. “The time delay occurs because the information inside the molecule only spreads at the speed of light.”
The results were detailed on October 16 in the journal Science.
Originally published in Live Science.