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Lock-and-key effect in the surface diffusion of large organic molecules probed by STM


A nanoscale understanding of the complex dynamics of large molecules at surfaces is essential for the bottom-up design of molecular nanostructures1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8. Here we show that we can change the diffusion coefficient of the complex organic molecule known as Violet Lander (VL, C108H104) on Cu(110) by two orders of magnitude by using the STM at low temperatures to switch between two adsorption configurations that differ only in the molecular orientation with respect to the substrate lattice. From an interplay with molecular dynamics simulations, we interpret the results within a lock-and-key model similar to the one driving the recognition between biomolecules: the molecule (key) is immobilized only when its orientation is such that the molecular shape fits the atomic lattice of the surface (lock); otherwise the molecule is highly mobile.

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Figure 1: 'Parallel' and 'rotated' VL molecules on a Cu surface.
Figure 2: Snapshots of an STM movie recorded at 180 K.
Figure 3: Ball-models for VL molecules adsorbed on a Cu(110) surface.
Figure 4: Molecular dynamics simulations showing the temporal evolution of VL molecules adsorbed on Cu(110) after an initial impulse.


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We acknowledge financial support from the Danish Ministry for Science, Technology and Innovation through the iNANO Center, from the VELUX foundation and from the EU network 'Manipulation of individual atoms and molecules' (AMNIST). R.O. acknowledges financial support from the EU through a Marie Curie Individual Fellowship. F.S., S.B.L. and D.S.G. acknowledge financial support from the Brazilian Agencies CNPq and FAPESP. We thank A. Gourdon for providing the molecules.

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Correspondence to Flemming Besenbacher.

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Otero, R., Hümmelink, F., Sato, F. et al. Lock-and-key effect in the surface diffusion of large organic molecules probed by STM. Nature Mater 3, 779–782 (2004).

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