Phys. Rev. Lett. (in the press); preprint at

Consider any fundamental chemical process in nature and it is likely to involve energy transfer between molecules. Notable ways for this to happen include fluorescent resonant energy transfer, which takes place between the electronic states of neighbouring molecules, and intermolecular Coulombic decay, where electronic energy transfer leads to ionization. The taxonomy of transfer processes, however, keeps getting richer: Lorenz Cederbaum has now investigated the possibility that the vibrational energy of a molecule can be transferred to a neighbour, thereby ionizing it.

According to his theoretical analysis, this vibrational intermolecular Coulombic decay could be surprisingly efficient at distances much beyond those that would allow a chemical bond. In fact, although the radiation lifetime of isolated vibrationally excited molecules goes from milliseconds to seconds, the small energy scales involved should make the process much faster, down to the nano- or picosecond timescale.