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Can X-ray diffraction distinguish between protium and deuterium atoms?


Isotopes are not normally considered to be distinguishable by X-ray crystal structure analysis. There is, of course, no problem as far as neutron diffraction is concerned, as neutron scattering amplitudes vary markedly and irregularly from one nuclide to another1. In particular, the neutron scattering amplitudes of protium and deuterium have opposite signs so that these two isotopes are especially easily identified. Indeed, in a key experiment nearly 20 yr ago, this difference was used together with the anomalous neutron scattering of 6Li to establish the absolute configuration of an enzymatically formed α-monodeuterioglycolic acid2. We discuss here the possibility of distinguishing deuterium from protium by X-ray diffraction on the basis of the difference in the vibrational behaviour of the two isotopic species.

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Seiler, P., Martinoni, B. & Dunitz, J. Can X-ray diffraction distinguish between protium and deuterium atoms?. Nature 309, 435–438 (1984).

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