For the First Time, See What the Most Basic Chemistry Actually Looks Like

For the first time scientists used a microscope to see a chemical reaction

The chemical rearrangement of oligo-(phenylene-1,2-ethynylenes) as seen in the microscope image (top) and the stick diagram of the molecular structure. de Oteyza et al

It’s one of the most basic things you learned in chemistry class: the chemical bond. Ionic and covalent bonds, sharing or stealing one, two, three pairs of electrons. You’d draw a little line, Na—Cl. There, salt. The chlorine atom steals an electron from sodium, and the atoms are bound together. As you went on in science you learned about fancier bond types (remember hydrogen bonding?) and the infamous benzene ring with its resonant electrons.*

That staple of your high school education? There it is, right there, in the picture above. For the first time ever, says Nadia Drake for Wired, scientists managed to take a picture of a chemical—oligo-(phenylene-1,2-ethynylenes)—as it rearranged its structure in response to heat. The little lines you see are the chemical bonds, which actually look a lot like the stick figures you’re used to from organic chemistry. The photos appear in a new study.

“Even though I use these molecules on a day to day basis, actually being able to see these pictures blew me away. Wow!” said Berkeley’s Felix Fischer in a release. “This was what my teachers used to say that you would never be able to actually see, and now we have it here.”

In chemistry, especially when it comes to designing new compounds and materials with very specific properties, the shape of the molecule matters just as much as the chemical composition. According to the authors in their study, the imaging technique gives them “unparalleled insight” into the chemical reaction they were studying. Being able to directly see the shape of your molecule is incredibly important, and should be able to help guide more accurate chemical creations in the future.

*post updated to more accurately reflect benzene’s electron structure

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