Science 327, 853–857 (2010)

Even when molecules are cooled to near absolute zero, chemical reactions can proceed at high rates, propelled by the strange laws of quantum mechanics. So say Deborah Jin and Jun Ye of the University of Colorado in Boulder and their colleagues.

The team cooled a gas of diatomic molecules comprising one potassium and one rubidium atom (KRb) to a few hundred nanokelvin, yet chemical reaction rates — where two molecules collided to produce K2 and Rb2 — could still be measured. Flipping the nuclear spin of some of the molecules increased the rates by a factor of between 10 and 100.

The researchers found that long-distance quantum effects — whereby atoms interact at a distance through quantum-mechanical tunnelling before being swapped in close-range collisions — strongly influenced the reaction rates.