New Reactions

The chemical processes which govern combustion, cloud formation, and climate change are extremely complex. And it appears that some new research has shown that these reactions (in addition to others) are entirely more complex than we ever thought. Researchers from Columbia University, led by Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Michael P. Burke, have discovered a fourth class of chemical reaction known as "chemically termolecular reactions." This involves the breaking and forming of chemical bonds between three molecules, when the collision of two molecules collides again, with a third. Their work was published in the journal Nature Chemistry.

The reaction was actually first hypothesized in the 1920s, but was at thought at the time to be unimportant or nonexistent, so no one managed to properly study them until now. The research used computer simulations to observe chemical reactions in a way that is difficult, if not impossible, in the traditional lab setting. According to Burke, "The power of these state-of-the-art computational methods is that they can provide a unique lens into harsh chemical environments ill-suited for experimental techniques for studying individual reaction dynamics."
Image credit: Michael P. Burke/Columbia Engineering

This means a new kind of chemical reaction does in fact exist, one that may have a profound impact on our comprehensive understanding of chemical reactions. This marks a fundamental shift in the way that these types of reactions are viewed. Consequently, the extent of its implications are not fully known, but what's clear is that we may have a small revolution on our hands.

What This Means for Everyday Life

Better understanding of these reactions could lead to safer and more efficient engines, among a host of other potential scientific improvements. According to Burke:

Potentially there could be innumerable reactions from this new class that impact how we model gas phase chemistry, from designing new types of engines to understanding the planetary chemistry responsible for cloud formations, climate change, evolution of pollutants, even perhaps the sequence of reactions that could impact the conditions for extraterrestrial life. Our discovery opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

Advancing our knowledge of the chemistry behind planetary atmospheres would have a profound impact on the search for extraterrestrial life in the universe. Many methods of determining the composition of a planet's atmosphere — and thus its habitability — are based on chemistry. Having a finer grasp of the most minute and ambiguous details of incoming data could give new insight into extraterrestrial life — and even how life on Earth came to be.

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This discovery lends weight to the notion of scientific investigation as an attempt to know the world through falsifiable observation, i.e., hypotheses about the world that are refutable through empirical (or sensorial) means. As new technology extends our empirical acumen, our capacity to seek out new life on new extraterrestrial planets also sinks into the universe beyond our five little human senses. When it was first hypothesized in the early 20th century, the theory of chemically termolecular reactions was beyond our capacity for observation, and so was not falsifiable. but with the advent of technology like quantum simulations, untold realities are just beyond our fingertips, awaiting discovery.

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