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Analytical Chemistry

Ahmed Zewail Award In Ultrafast Science & Technology

by Corinna Wu
March 10, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 10

Credit: Courtesy of Michael Fayer
Photo of Michael D. Fayer, the David Mulvane Ehrsam & Edward Curtis Franklin Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University
Credit: Courtesy of Michael Fayer

Sponsored by the Ahmed Zewail Endowment Fund established by Newport Corp.

Michael D. Fayer has spent his career exploring fundamental questions about how molecules move. Fayer, the David Mulvane Ehrsam & Edward Curtis Franklin Professor of Chemistry at Stanford University, has pioneered the use of ultrafast infrared laser pulses to probe chemical dynamics. His work has made it possible to examine molecules in their native environments—in liquids, as part of solids, and at thermal equilibrium—and answer important questions about how they behave.

As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, he began studying the properties and dynamics of molecules using pulsed optically detected magnetic resonance (ODMR), working in the lab of Charles B. Harris. The work intrigued him so much that Fayer continued working in Harris’s lab toward his doctorate.

During his graduate studies, Fayer continued his ODMR work and read about a new photon echo technique, which used pulses of light instead of the radio pulses used in magnetic resonance. After receiving a Ph.D. in 1974, he joined the faculty at Stanford, where he pioneered the application of ultrafast photon echo methods and other nonlinear techniques to the study of the dynamics of molecules.

Over time, ultraviolet and visible lasers became capable of making extremely fast measurements, but the broad spectra of molecules presented major problems in data analysis, making them “virtually impossible to disentangle to get decent information,” Fayer says.

However, Fayer’s friends in Stanford’s physics department started him thinking that the technology existed to do more. Those physicists had invented the free-electron laser (FEL), a light source that could generate ultrafast pulses of IR radiation. Because IR spectroscopy characterizes the motions of chemical bonds and provides more resolved spectra than UV and visible techniques, Fayer saw an untapped niche and began working on using pulsed IR light to get vibrational echoes from molecules.

In 1993, he and his colleagues succeeded in using an FEL to conduct the first ultrafast IR vibrational photon echo experiments on liquid and glass samples on a picosecond timescale (Phys. Rev. Lett. 1993, DOI: 10.1103/physrevlett.70.2718). Fayer and others eventually developed tabletop laser systems that could create those ultrafast IR pulses, allowing for more complicated pulse sequences than possible at a giant FEL facility.

In the early 2000s, Fayer’s research literally entered another dimension: Along with several other groups, Fayer expanded his initial vibrational echo experiments into two-dimensional IR spectroscopy. With 2D-IR, Fayer could look at the structural degrees of freedom of molecules and systems of molecules on the ultrafast timescales on which many molecular processes occur. He and his group have used 2D-IR to characterize such fundamental processes as molecular isomerization and the motions of water molecules in different environments.

Fayer “is now followed by dozens of groups who are reaping the benefits of his imagination,” according to Keith A. Nelson, a professor of chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Fayer, 66, was elected to the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 1999 and the National Academy of Sciences in 2007. He is also a fellow of the American Physical Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the Optical Society. His many awards include ACS’s 2007 E. Bright Wilson Award in Spectroscopy.

Fayer will present the award address before the Division of Physical Chemistry.


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