Science and Technology Facilities Council
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Solving the solvent mystery for better drug design

Using the unique capabilities of STFC’s ULTRA laser system, scientists from the University of Bristol have been able to watch a chemical reaction happening in solution with more detail than ever before. This could lead to improved drug design for medical therapies and catalysts for industrial processing, and pave the way for further applications in bio- and atmospheric chemistry. The results were published in Science Express on-line (Thursday 3 February).

The ULTRA experiments, which took place at the Lasers for Science Facility (LSF) at STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, will provide scientists with a unique insight into how liquid solvents affect chemical reactions at the molecular level. This can be in solution in liquids such as organic solvents or water. Organic solvents are used in the chemical and pharmaceutical industries for a wide range of industrial processes such as the manufacture of drug molecules for medical therapies. Similarly, much of the chemistry in the cells of living organisms takes place in solution so understanding these chemical reactions on such a fundamental level is vital.

Heading up the programme is Professor Andrew Orr-Ewing from the University of Bristol’s School of Chemistry who said; "We are very excited by the results - especially as 2011 is International Year of Chemistry. Liquids have a disordered and rapidly changing structure, and collisions between molecules occur on timescales as fast as ten thousand billion collisions per second. It is now possible for us to examine chemical reactions within a solvent at unprecedented levels of detail on picosecond timescales (one thousand-billionths of a second). We wouldn’t have been able to do this without the unique capability of the ULTRA laser".

The knowledge gathered during these experiments will be used to better inform computer models designed to simulate chemical reactions in liquids.

The full paper can be found on the Science website:

Notes to editors:


Bekky Stredwick

STFC Press office

Tel: + 44 (0)1235 445777

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Further information:

For a copy of the Science paper (article #25 in this week's SciPak), please contact Science press package office on (+1-202-326-6440 or

The five year programme is funded by Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC) and involves a collaboration between the School of Chemistry at the University of Bristol and the Lasers for Science Facility based at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire.

The ULTRA laser:

ULTRA provides ultrashort laser light pulses (each less than ten million millionths of a second long) of many colours that activate chemical reactions and then takes "snapshots" of the chemical reaction. Special cameras take 10,000 snapshots a second and each picture gives a "molecular fingerprint", a pattern unique to each type of molecule in the chemical mix. These fingerprints, known as vibrational spectra, (both infrared and Raman) not only give information on the changes in structure of the molecules but also show how fast and how efficiently these changes are happening.

The LSF is part of STFC’s world leading Central Laser Facility and is located in the new Research Complex at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory.

Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) The Science and Technology Facilities Council ensures the UK maintains its leading place on the world stage by delivering world-class science; accessing and hosting international facilities; developing innovative technologies; and increasing the socio-economic impact of its research through effective knowledge exchange partnerships.

The Council has a broad science portfolio including Astronomy, Particle Physics, Particle Astrophysics, Nuclear Physics, Space Science, Synchrotron Radiation, Neutron Sources and High Power Lasers. In addition the Council manages and operates three internationally renowned laboratories:

- The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxfordshire

- The Daresbury Laboratory, Cheshire

- The UK Astronomy Technology Centre, Edinburgh The Council gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), the Institute Laue Langevin (ILL), European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) and the European Southern Observatory (ESO). It operates the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Chile, and in the UK LOFAR and funds the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility, which includes the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank Observatory.



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