Quantum chemical calculations have been used to solve big mysteries in space. Soon the same calculations may be used to produce tomorrow’s cancer drugs.
Some years ago research scientists at the University of Oslo were able to show that the chemical bonding in the magnetic fields of small, compact stars, so-called whitedwarf stars, is different from that on Earth. Their calculations pointed to a completely new bonding mechanism between two hydrogen atoms. The news attracted great attention in the media. The discovery, which in fact was made before astrophysicists themselves observed the first hydrogen molecules in white dwarf stars, was made by UiO’s Centre for Theoretical and Computational Chemistry. They based their work on accurate quantum chemical calculations of what happens when atoms and molecules are exposed to extreme conditions.
The research team is headed by Professor Trygve Helgaker, who for the last thirty years has taken the international lead on the design of a computer system for calculating quantum chemical reactions in molecules.
Quantum chemical calculations are needed to explain what happens to the electrons’ trajectories within a molecule.
Consider what happens when UV radiation sends energy-rich photons into your cells. This increases the energy level of the molecules. The outcome may well be that some of the molecules break up. This is exactly what happens when you sun-bathe.
“The extra energy will affect the behaviour of electrons and can destroy the chemical bonding within the molecule. This can only be explained by quantum chemistry. The quantum chemical models are used to produce a picture of the forces and tensions at play between the atoms and the electrons of a molecule, and of what is required for a molecule to dissociate,” says Trygve Helgaker.
The absurd world of the electrons
The quantum chemical calculations solve the Schrödinger equation for molecules. This equation is fundamental to all chemistry and describes the whereabouts of all electrons within a molecule. But here we need to pay attention, for things are really rather more complicated than that. Your high school physics teacher will have told you that electrons circle the atom. Things are not that simple, though, in the world of quantum physics. Electrons are not only particles, but waves as well. The electrons can be in many places at the same time. It’s impossible to keep track of their position. However, there is hope. Quantum chemical models describe the electrons’ statistical positions. In other words, they can establish the probable location of each electron.
The results of a quantum chemical calculation are often more accurate than what is achievable experimentally.
Among other things, the quantum chemical calculations can be used to predict chemical reactions. This means that the chemists will no longer have to rely on guesstimates in the lab. It is also possible to use quantum chemical calculations in order to understand what happens in experiments.