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A petit chemical question

Dear all,

First please be informed that as to the chemistry I am a perfect layman.

Please consider a phenol molecule of which -OH group is attached onto some substrate surface.  And please assume that one of the six carbon atoms is labeled by a radioactive isotope 13C.  I think that we usually image that each of the carbon atom is fixed at each specific corner of the hexagon.  I think that we usually regard that the entire electron cloud is working in order to fix the each carbon nucleus on its own position forever.

Here I would like to ask a question.  All of the nuclei in the benzen ring are quantum entities.  So, it inclines me to suppose that all of the member nuclei are suffering positional uncertainty.  That is, I would like to imagine that the 13C nucleus might be wandering from corner to corner, or even jumping the next corner and arriving at the third corner as the time passes.  Do you think such a positional leap or an exchnage of nucleus without disturbing the quantum mechanical state of the entwining electron cloud is possible?

Thank you for reading


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2 Replies
Contributor II

Re: A petit chemical question


Thanks for asking. This is an interesting question.

First, let's clear up one point: 13C is not radioactive, 14C is. 13C is a stable isotope with a spin-1/2 nucleus, which makes it amenable to study by nuclear magnetic resonance. 13C NMR is, in fact, an extremely common technique.

In practice, we know that 13C nuclei stay put, and do not relocate to other parts of the molecule. It may help you to consider a few points:

- Electron positions are so indeterminate because they have a high degree of kinetic energy and have very little mass (relative to protons and neutrons, at least). That's why we describe them with orbitals, which are basically positional probability distributions

- Nuclei are much heavier and have less kinetic energy, so we can know their position with much more precision

- Instead of wondering whether a 12C and a 13C nucleus could swap position (which involves two extremely unlikely events), you should consider the probability that a single neutron will spontaneously relocate to a different nucleus. While this event is much more likely, it is still extremely unlikely to happen.

- For decades people have used site-specifically-labeled compounds to study metabolic pathways and synthetic reaction mechanisms. In practice, we know that if we purchase ore create a site-specifically-labeled compound that the 13C stays in that position. If it migrated, we could observe changes in the 31C NMR spectrum over time, and we don't.


- Josh

Re: A petit chemical question

Dear Sir,

Please take a break and have some tea for a while.

Thank you for your graceful and refined answer along with your tender heart.

I have understood that people already have been watching whether any relocation of the carbon nuclei of a chemical compound in its stable condition could have happened or not, and they didn't find.

May I ask you one more question, Sir?  If you are busy now, then please feel free to ignore the following.

Can we observe and follow in real time the motions of carbon atoms at the exact instant of the chemical reaction with enough time resolution power by the current NMR technique?  Can we know the detailed paths which the reactant carbon atoms follow in space?  To say further, can we picture the whole motions of all atoms that participate in a chemical reaction from the NMR spectrum data?

Best regards

From a perfect layman

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