Busted bonds

The tenacious bonds between two carbon atoms can be broken in a surprisingly simple process, a new study finds.

Sergei S. Sheiko of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and his colleagues synthesized molecules with a carbon backbone and long, densely packed side chains arranged as bristles on a bottle brush are. When the researchers put these molecules on solid surfaces, such as graphite or silicon, they found that the molecules’ carbon backbones snapped into pieces.

The culprits, says Sheiko, are the bristlelike side chains. When the molecules are put onto certain types of surfaces, the side chains are attracted to them. The carbon backbone extends to accommodate this interaction, but even when it’s fully stretched, “50 percent of the bristles do not have a parking spot, but they desperately want one,” says Sheiko.

The competition for surface contact continues to impose tension on the carbon backbone, breaking its carbon bonds, the researchers report in the March 9 Nature. The team is now calculating the tension that ruptures the new bonds.

Aimee Cunningham

Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

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