The UC Irvine Center for Chemical Innovation - Chemistry at the Space-Time Limit (CaSTL) aims to observe and record chemistry in the act, one event at a time, one molecule at a time. By watching single molecules undergo chemical transformation and creating movies of a molecule's atomic and electronic rearrangements, the Center will uncover the inner workings of important chemical reactions. The vibronic dynamics of a molecule upon reduction, the rearrangement of electron density in a molecule as it adsorbs onto a catalytic site, the transfer of electrons through a molecular wire, and the breaking or making of a bond are among the immediate targets of investigation. The Center achieves its goals by pushing the experimental limits of space and time resolution, using a combination of scanning tunneling microscopy and ultrafast nonlinear spectroscopy to attain simultaneous Ã…ngstrom-femtosecond resolution. On the scale of relevance to macro-molecular chemistry (e.g., nanometer-microsecond), scanning probe microscopies combined with time-resolved nonlinear spectroscopy are used to obtain chemically speciated, time-lapse microscopy. The requisite theory, in particular of plasmon-enhanced spectroscopy and time-dependent density functional methods, are developed in parallel to accurately model these processes, to interpret and to design experiments. The enabling science and tools have a common intellectual base and a toolset that can be tuned in sharpness to provide the precision needed to study a wide range of chemical processes with precise joint space-time resolution, from Ã…ngstrom-femtosecond to micrometer-microsecond. The accessibility of time-lapse images of elementary chemical processes will fundamentally change our modes of inquiry, and manipulation of, molecular science and engineering, and could underlie fundamental breakthroughs in a range of fields relying on sub-molecular understanding and manipulation of our world.

CaSTL is committed to education at all levels, directly through graduate research and postdoctoral training in these challenging fields of science, and research opportunities to many California high school and community college students, particularly those from under-represented groups. The development of new scientific instruments and computational chemistry packages will be widely disseminated in partnership with the private sector. The Center will also offer an outreach program to students of all ages through a partnership with the Discovery Science Museum in Santa Ana. The very visual nature of the Center's transformative science makes it particularly accessible to the public at large. CaSTL video clips of fundamental chemical processes will be used in classrooms, podcasts and other web-based formats, and broad public science outreach will be enabled through television broadcasts.

Project Report

was established in 2009 as an NSF funded Center for Chemical Innovation. The scientific vision of the Center can be summarized as the invention of the Chemiscope – the ability to track individual molecular events in real-time and with atomic resolution. Based at the University of California at Irvine, CaSTL has assembled leading scientists who share the center vision and bring the necessary expertise to realize its goals. In addition to its research mission, CaSTL has spearheaded successful programs of outreach, public education, and efforts to broaden the participation of underrepresented minorities. The Center supports approximately 60 researchers on five different campuses, and prepares a unique brand of scientists trained through multidisciplinary research. The Chemiscope can be expected to have a similar impact on chemistry and molecular physics as the microscope had on biology. The notable milestones accomplished to date foretell this expectation. Among them are: The observation of the vibration of a single molecule in real-time; seeing the motion of a single electron upon injection into a single molecule; videography of the quantum mechanical motion of a molecular bond; the making and breaking of selected single bonds inside a single molecule; spectroscopy inside a single molecule, with sub-molecular spatial resolution; recording electrical current from a single enzyme molecule as it functions. The near future will see sharpening of the tools that are already in place, along with developments of equally promising methods, such as ultrafast tunneling microscopy and photo-force microscopy. The implementation of the novel paradigm ushered by CaSTL, to solve outstanding problems in chemistry, is another challenge assumed by the Center. A planned target is the science of direct solar-to-chemical energy conversion. The analytical tools developed in CaSTL are being tuned to have significant technological impact. In this category is the ability to see and track the dynamics of surface states with nanometer spatial resolution, which as a diagnostic tool, should lead to better solar cells, molecular electronics, high performance optoelectronic materials and devices. As a Center of innovation, in collaboration with its industrial partners, CaSTL is actively pursuing the dissemination of its technologies as they mature. Because of its foreseen demand in nano-engineering, the photo-force microscope is already under commercial co-development as a stand-alone instrument. Targeted to the biomolecular community, and more generally as a surface analytic tool, phase sensitive sum frequency microscopy is an instrument being developed for broad dissemination. And advances toward the Chemiscope are widely emulated. Beyond the still images of microscopy with atomic resolution that adorn modern textbooks, video clips of CaSTL will bring the dynamic world of molecules to life. A recently published movie of the chemical bond is exemplary. In contrast with classical notions, the quantum reality is a wave motion that can be seen in phase space, and wavefunctions can be directly seen experimentally. The single film clip contains a wealth of lessons to be incorporated in the undergrad curriculum, portending the future of scientific inquiry. CaSTL has implemented numerous outreach programs aimed at diverse audiences: K-12 education in collaboration with local after-school programs and with local high schools; undergraduate education through targeted laboratory classes; public education by raising awareness through involvement in the science festivals in collaboration with the Optical Society of America, workshops for teachers, and Discovery Science Center; dissemination among the larger scientific community through the organization of symposia and summer schools. CaSTL has already placed over 50 scientist alumni in high-tech industry, in national laboratories, and in faculty positions.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Chemistry (CHE)
Cooperative Agreement (Coop)
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Katharine J. Covert
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University of California Irvine
United States
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