A new study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego and the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Germany finds that when electrons go from one place to another, they can make any of several possible configurations.
In fact, the researchers say this can lead to some of the most intriguing electrical effects in nature.
“It is an exciting finding because the electrons are so abundant in the universe,” says lead author Eran Katz, an assistant professor of chemistry and materials science at the UC San Diego School of Medicine and a member of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.
“These are the kind of phenomena that we thought we were not seeing.”
In their study, which appears in the journal Nature, the team of scientists compared the electron configuration of different atoms of hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen to their potential state in the presence of different chemical energy levels.
The researchers found that the electrons in the hydrogen atom tended to gravitate to the hydrogen nucleus and form an electron-positron pair, while those in the nitrogen atom tended toward the nitrogen nucleus.
As the electron pairs interact, the interaction generates a potential state that’s a combination of a positively charged electron (a nucleus) and a negatively charged atom (a electron-hole pair).
This potential state is thought to exist in nature because it’s similar to the energy state of an atom in a liquid, like a liquid water, Katz says.
In the case of the nitrogen, the electron pair tends to gravite to the nitrogen’s electron hole and can create a potential energy state called a positron.
In contrast, the electrons tend to gravitose to the nucleus and create a state called an electron pair.
When the two states are coupled, the potential energy of the electron pairing is very low.
The positron state is the strongest potential energy in the nucleus.
The electron pairs are also the ones that can be detected by electron microscopy, Katz explains.
When two electrons are coupled together, their interactions produce a potential of about a billion electron volts.
That’s a small amount of energy, but it’s sufficient to turn a single electron into a proton.
The scientists found that if one of the electrons were attached to a hydrogen atom and charged with a particular chemical energy, the positron would then be emitted as an excited positron electron, which would have the same energy as the electron that’s being excited.
The proton would also be emitted in this excited state.
In this state, electrons in this pair can then travel freely around the atom, Katz said.
The electrons in these pairs, however, can also be detected if they’re attached to an oxygen atom and a hydrogen ion.
In such a situation, the two electrons that are charged with hydrogen can interact with each other to produce a state known as a conduction electron pair, where electrons that have already interacted with each another are trapped inside a conducting electron pair that’s attached to the oxygen atom.
When one of these pairs is excited by hydrogen ions, the hydrogen ions are attracted to the conduction electrons, which are attracted by the electrons that haven’t yet interacted.
In addition to the new potentials of the hydrogen atoms, the new experiment also found that when the electron-pair is excited, the conductive electron pair also emits a positronic charge, Katz explained.
The conduction ion pair, in turn, emits a pair of charged positron and conduction neutrons.
This is why the electron states that are produced by these pairs can be predicted, Katz added.
These findings could also have applications for future chemical synthesis, because it could be possible to synthesize these electron-electron pairs from one-electrode atoms and one-atom-thick materials by introducing them into a solution of a chemical that’s already formed, Katz noted.
“This opens up exciting possibilities to explore new ways to synthesizing electron-neutron pairs,” Katz says, noting that such an approach could potentially be used to design materials with properties such as flexibility, resistance and strength.
Katz is working with his colleagues at UC San Francisco, the University in Lisbon and the Institute of Energy at the Max-Planck-Institute.
The paper’s co-authors are Dr. Anja B. E. Sørensen, an associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the university; Dr. Jan B. Jonsson, a postdoctoral fellow at the U-P for Chemical Sciences; and Dr. Kristian T. Nielsen, a professor of materials science and engineering at Lund University.
The research was supported by the U of C’s Department of Chemistry.