What is a Zeptosecond? Recent World Record in Short Time Measurement Explains


Back in 1999, Ahmed Zewail, an Egyptian chemist, was awarded a Nobel Prize for measuring the velocity at which molecules alter their shape. Zewail is also known for the femtochemistry development utilizing ultrashort laser flashes.

Recently, a team of researchers investigated for the first time a process that is shorter than femtoseconds by magnitudes. How could such a thing be possible?

The team analyzed how long it takes for a single photon to cross a hydrogen molecule. The results are astonishing. Here is what you need to know.

The Revolution of Zeptoseconds

Researchers discovered that a photon needs approximately 247 zeptoseconds to cross a hydrogen molecule. Such a result represents the shortest period that has been successfully measured so far. 

The researchers needed to carry out the time measurement on a hydrogen molecule. Then, they irradiated with X-rays from the X-ray laser source PETRA III at an accelerator facility dubbed DESY in Hamburg.

Furthermore, the team set the X-rays’ energy at such a level that a single photon was enough to discharge both electrons out of the hydrogen molecule.

It is known that electrons act like waves and particles at the same time. So, the discharge of the first electron ended in electron waves sent first in the one. And in the second hydrogen molecule atom in fast sequence, with the waves blending. 

But something odd happened. The photon acted as a flat pebble dipped twice across the water, resulting in an interference pattern. 

Sven Grundmann, whose doctoral dissertation forms the basis of the scientific article in Science, released a statement. He said that the result is: “[…] up to 247 zeptoseconds, depending on how far apart in the molecule, the two atoms were from the perspective of light.”

The team also observed that the electron shell in a molecule doesn’t react to light everywhere simultaneously. Such a thing was done for the first time.


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