Zeptosecond birth time delay in molecular photoionization

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Science  16 Oct 2020:
Vol. 370, Issue 6514, pp. 339-341
DOI: 10.1126/science.abb9318

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The travel time of light in a molecule

There is currently considerable interest in experimental studies of various ultrafast processes. Of particular interest are the real-time dynamics of photoionization, one of the most fundamental processes caused by the light-matter interaction, in which the absorption of a photon leads to the ejection of an electron and the formation of anion. Using an electron interferometric technique, Grundmann et al. report a birth time delay on the order of a few hundred zeptoseconds between two electron emissions from the two sides of molecular hydrogen, which is interpreted as the travel time of the photon across the molecule. The proposed technique is generally applicable to more complex systems, and further studies are necessary to support this interpretation.

Science, this issue p. 339


Photoionization is one of the fundamental light-matter interaction processes in which the absorption of a photon launches the escape of an electron. The time scale of this process poses many open questions. Experiments have found time delays in the attosecond (10−18 seconds) domain between electron ejection from different orbitals, from different electronic bands, or in different directions. Here, we demonstrate that, across a molecular orbital, the electron is not launched at the same time. Rather, the birth time depends on the travel time of the photon across the molecule, which is 247 zeptoseconds (1 zeptosecond = 10−21 seconds) for the average bond length of molecular hydrogen. Using an electron interferometric technique, we resolve this birth time delay between electron emission from the two centers of the hydrogen molecule.

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