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The powerful kick of a laser has spun molecules faster than they’ve ever been spun before: 10 trillion rotations per second, or 600 trillion RPM. A car with tires turning at that spin rate would travel the distance to the nearest star in half an hour. “There’s definitely nothing macroscopic that can spin that fast,” says Valery Milner, a molecular physicist at the University of British Columbia who led the study published March 19 in Physical Review Letters.
The feat required a precisely sculpted, 100-trillionths-of-a-second laser pulse that coaxed a batch of neutral molecules of oxygen and nitrogen to polarize and spin, all in the same direction. Milner says the technique could allow scientists to use rotational stress to sever molecular bonds and create custom chemical reactions.