ACS Nano

Portraits of Soot Molecules Reveal Pathways to Large Aromatics, Five-/Seven-Membered Rings, and Inception through π-Radical Localization

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Incipient soot early in the flame was studied by high-resolution atomic force microscopy and scanning tunneling microscopy to resolve the atomic structure and orbital densities of single soot molecules prepared on bilayer NaCl on Cu(111). We resolved extended catacondensed and pentagonal-ring linked (pentalinked) species indicating how small aromatics cross-link and cyclodehydrogenate to form moderately sized aromatics. In addition, we resolved embedded pentagonal and heptagonal rings in flame aromatics. These nonhexagonal rings suggest simultaneous growth through aromatic cross-linking/cyclodehydrogenation and hydrogen abstraction acetylene addition. Moreover, we observed three classes of open-shell π-radical species. First, radicals with an unpaired π-electron delocalized along the molecule’s perimeter. Second, molecules with partially localized π-electrons at zigzag edges of a π-radical. Third, molecules with strong localization of a π-electron at pentagonal- and methylene-type sites. The third class consists of π-radicals localized enough to enable thermally stable bonds, as well as multiradical species such as diradicals in the open-shell triplet state. These π-diradicals can rapidly cluster through barrierless chain reactions enhanced by van der Waals interactions. These results improve our understanding of soot formation and the products formed by combustion and could provide insights for cleaner combustion and the production of hydrogen without CO2 emissions.