A chemical reaction is a bit like traveling from Vienna to Venice: your destination might be downhill, but to get there, you’ll need to cross the Alps. You can think of the energy changes molecules must go through as a landscape. Between the start and end of a reaction, this terrain can sometimes be so hilly that otherwise favorable reactions don’t happen at all if molecules lack the energy to make it over the bumps. Yet in some of these cases, such reactions do happen, thanks to quantum tunneling, which allows particles to occasionally bore through energy barriers they’d never be able to climb. This bizarre behavior is forbidden in traditional physics but allowed under the wild rules of quantum mechanics.
Now, in a new study published in Nature, scientists have managed to spot quantum tunneling in what classical physics would deem an impossible reaction between hydrogen molecules and deuterium ions—heavy, charged versions of hydrogen. This is the first time that researchers have managed to experimentally confirm a theoretical prediction about the rate of tunneling in a reaction involving ions. “Quantum mechanics in theory should be able to predict this [rate] very well,” says physicist Stephan Schlemmer of the University of Cologne in Germany, who was not involved in the study. “But nobody was sure whether this was really true.”
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