Femtosecond x-ray spectroscopy of an electrocyclic ring-opening reaction

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Science  07 Apr 2017:
Vol. 356, Issue 6333, pp. 54-59
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaj2198

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X-ray vision catches Woodward-Hoffmann

The celebrated Woodward-Hoffmann (W-H) rules rationalize a variety of rapid bond rearrangements in organic molecules. The key insight involved symmetry conservation in the electronic journey from reactant to product. Attar et al. now report femtosecond x-ray absorption spectra and accompanying simulation studies that track shifts in carbon electronic states during one such reaction: the photochemical ring opening of cyclohexadiene to hexatriene (see the Perspective by Sension). The smooth evolution that occurs in the vicinity of the pericyclic minimum provides direct affirmation of the W-H framework. Moreover, the use of a convenient tabletop apparatus bodes well for future x-ray studies of ultrafast electronic dynamics.

Science, this issue p. 54; see also p. 31


The ultrafast light-activated electrocyclic ring-opening reaction of 1,3-cyclohexadiene is a fundamental prototype of photochemical pericyclic reactions. Generally, these reactions are thought to proceed through an intermediate excited-state minimum (the so-called pericyclic minimum), which leads to isomerization via nonadiabatic relaxation to the ground state of the photoproduct. Here, we used femtosecond (fs) soft x-ray spectroscopy near the carbon K-edge (~284 electron volts) on a tabletop apparatus to directly reveal the valence electronic structure of this transient intermediate state. The core-to-valence spectroscopic signature of the pericyclic minimum observed in the experiment was characterized, in combination with time-dependent density functional theory calculations, to reveal overlap and mixing of the frontier valence orbital energy levels. We show that this transient valence electronic structure arises within 60 ± 20 fs after ultraviolet photoexcitation and decays with a time constant of 110 ± 60 fs.

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