Pick an empirical formula. Now, what’s the most stable compound that fits it? Not an easy question, for sure, and it’s the topic of this paper in Angewandte Chemie. Most chemists will immediately realize that the first problem is the sheer number of possibilities, and the second one is figuring out their energies. A nonscientist might think that this is the sort of thing that would have been worked out a long time ago, but that definitely isn’t the case. Why think about these things?
What is this “Guinness” molecule isomer search good for? Some astrochemists think in such terms when they look for molecules in interstellar space. A rule with exceptions says that the most stable isomers have a higher abundance (Astrophys. J. 2009, 696, L133), although kinetic control undoubtedly has a say in this. Pyrolysis or biotechnology processes, for example, in anaerobic biomass-to-fuel conversions, may be classified on the energy scale of their products. The fate of organic aerosols upon excitation with highly energetic radiation appears to be strongly influenced by such sequences because of ion-catalyzed chain reactions (Phys. Chem. Chem. Phys. 2013, 15, 940). The magic of protein folding is tied to the most stable atomic arrangement, although one must keep in mind that this is a minimum-energy search with hardly any chemical-bond rearrangement. We should rather not think about what happens to our proteins in a global search for their minimum-energy structure, although the peptide bond is not so bad in globally minimizing interatomic energy. Regularity can help and ab initio crystal structure prediction for organic compounds is slowly coming into reach. Again, the integrity of the underlying molecule is usually preserved in such searches.
Things get even trickier when you don’t restrict yourself to single compounds. It’s pointed out that the low-energy form of the hexose empirical formula (C6H12O6) might well be a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide (which sounds like the inside of a comet to me). That brings up another reason this sort of thinking is useful: if you want to sequester carbon dioxide, what’s the best way to do it? What molecular assemblies are most energetically favorable, and at what temperatures do they exist, and what level of complexity? At larger scales, we’ll also need to think about such things in the making of supramolecular assemblies for nanotechnology.
The author, Martin Suhm of Göttingen, calls for a database of the lowest-energy species for each given formula as an invitation for people to break the records. I’d like to see someone give it a try. It would provide challenges for synthesis, spectroscopy and (especially) modeling and computational chemistry.