Section: Scientific Foundations
Quantum Chemistry aims at understanding the properties of matter through the modeling of its behavior at a subatomic scale, where matter is described as an assembly of nuclei and electrons.
At this scale, the equation that rules the interactions between these constitutive elements is the Schrödinger equation. It can be considered (except in few special cases notably those involving relativistic phenomena or nuclear reactions) as a universal model for at least three reasons. First it contains all the physical information of the system under consideration so that any of the properties of this system can in theory be deduced from the Schrödinger equation associated to it. Second, the Schrödinger equation does not involve any empirical parameter, except some fundamental constants of Physics (the Planck constant, the mass and charge of the electron, ...); it can thus be written for any kind of molecular system provided its chemical composition, in terms of natures of nuclei and number of electrons, is known. Third, this model enjoys remarkable predictive capabilities, as confirmed by comparisons with a large amount of experimental data of various types.
On the other hand, using this high quality model requires working with space and time scales which are both very tiny: the typical size of the electronic cloud of an isolated atom is the Angström (10-10 meter), and the size of the nucleus embedded in it is 10-15 meter; the typical vibration period of a molecular bond is the femtosecond (10-15 second), and the characteristic relaxation time for an electron is 10-18 second. Consequently, Quantum Chemistry calculations concern very short time (say 10-12 second) behaviors of very small size (say 10-27 m3 ) systems. The underlying question is therefore whether information on phenomena at these scales is or not of some help to understand, or better predict, macroscopic properties of matter.
It is certainly not true that all macroscopic properties can be simply upscaled from the consideration of the short time behavior of a tiny sample of matter. Many of them proceed (also) from ensemble or bulk effects, that are far from being easy to understand and to model. Striking examples are found in solid state materials or biological systems. Cleavage, the ability minerals have to naturally split along crystal surfaces (e.g. mica yields to thin flakes) is an ensemble effect. Protein folding is also an ensemble effect that originates from the presence of the surrounding medium; it is responsible for peculiar properties (e.g. unexpected acidity of some reactive site enhanced by special interactions) upon which vital processes are based.
However, it is undoubtedly true that on the other hand many macroscopic phenomena originate from elementary processes which take place at the atomic scale. Let us mention for instance the fact that the elastic constants of a perfect crystal or the color of a chemical compound (which is related to the wavelengths absorbed or emitted during optic transitions between electronic levels) can be evaluated by atomic scale calculations. In the same fashion, the lubricative properties of graphite are essentially due to a phenomenon which can be entirely modeled at the atomic scale.
It is therefore reasonable to simulate the behavior of matter at the atomic scale in order to understand what is going on at the macroscopic one. The journey is however a long one. Starting from the basic principles of Quantum Mechanics to model the matter at the subatomic scale, one finally uses statistical mechanics to reach the macroscopic scale. It is often necessary to rely on intermediate steps to deal with phenomena which take place on various mesoscales . Possibly, one approach is coupled to the others within the so-called multiscale models. The sequel indicates how this journey can be completed focusing rather on the first scale (the subatomic one), than on the latter ones.
It has already been mentioned that at the subatomic scale, the behavior of nuclei and electrons is governed by the Schrödinger equation, either in its time dependent form or in its time independent form. Let us only mention at this point that
both equations involve the quantum Hamiltonian of the molecular system under consideration; from a mathematical viewpoint, it is a self-adjoint operator on some Hilbert space; both the Hilbert space and the Hamiltonian operator depend on the nature of the system;
also present into these equations is the wavefunction of the system; it completely describes its state; its L2 norm is set to one.
The time dependent equation is a first order linear evolution equation, whereas the time-independent equation is a linear eigenvalue equation.
For the reader more familiar with numerical analysis than with quantum mechanics, the linear nature of the problems stated above may look auspicious. What makes the numerical simulation of these equations extremely difficult is essentially the huge size of the Hilbert space: indeed, this space is roughly some symmetry-constrained subspace of , with d = 3(M + N) , M and N respectively denoting the number of nuclei and the number of electrons the system is made of. The parameter d is already 39 for a single water molecule and reaches rapidly 106 for polymers or biological molecules. In addition, a consequence of the universality of the model is that one has to deal at the same time with several energy scales. In molecular systems, the basic elementary interaction between nuclei and electrons (the two-body Coulomb interaction) appears in various complex physical and chemical phenomena whose characteristic energies cover several orders of magnitude: the binding energy of core electrons in heavy atoms is 104 times as large as a typical covalent bond energy, which is itself around 20 times as large as the energy of a hydrogen bond. High precision or at least controlled error cancellations are thus required to reach chemical accuracy when starting from the Schrödinger equation.
Clever approximations of the Schrödinger problems are therefore needed. The main two approximation strategies, namely the Born-Oppenheimer-Hartree-Fock and the Born-Oppenheimer-Kohn-Sham strategies, end up with large systems of coupled nonlinear partial differential equations, each of these equations being posed on . The size of the underlying functional space is thus reduced at the cost of a dramatic increase of the mathematical complexity of the problem: nonlinearity. The mathematical and numerical analysis of the resulting models is one of the major concerns of the project-team.