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Dr. Gabriel Merino wins The Walter Kohn Prize 2018

Just as I was thinking about the state of Mexican scientific environment in the global scale, Prof. Dr. Gabriel Merino from CINVESTAV comes and gets this prize awarded by the International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) and the Quantum ESPRESSO Foundation, showing us all that great science is possible even under pressing circumstances. 

Prof. Dr. Gabriel Merino at CINVESTAV Mérida, Yucatán, MEXICO

This prize is awarded biennially to a young scientist for outstanding contributions in the field of quantum-mechanical materials and molecular modeling, performed in a developing country or emerging economy,and in the case of Dr. Merino it is awarded not only for his contributions to theory and applications but also by his contributions to the prediction of novel systems that violate standard chemical paradigms, broadening the scope of concepts like aromaticity, coordination and chemical bond. The list of his contributions is very long despite his young age and there are barely any topic in chemistry or materials science that escapes his interest.

Gabriel is also one of the leading organizers of the Mexican Theoretical Physical Chemistry Meeting, an unstoppable mentor with many of his former students now leading research teams of their own. He is pretty much a force of nature. 

Congratulations to Dr. Gabriel Merino, his team, CINVESTAV and thanks for being such an inspiration and a good friend at the same time.

¡Felicidades, Gabriel!


Computational Chemistry from Latin America

The video below is a sad recount of the scientific conditions in Mexico that have driven an enormous amount of brain power to other countries. Doing science is always a hard endeavour but in developing countries is also filled with so many hurdles that it makes you wonder if it is all worth the constant frustration. 

That is why I think it is even more important for the Latin American community to make our science visible, and special issues like this one from the International Journal of Quantum Chemistry goes a long way in doing so. This is not the first time IJQC devotes a special issue to the Comp.Chem. done south of the proverbial border, a full issue devoted to the Mexican Physical Chemistry Meetings (RMFQT) was also published six years ago.

I believe these special issues in mainstream journals are great ways of promoting our work in a collected way that stresses our particular lines of research instead of having them spread a number of journals. Also, and I may be ostracized for this, but I think coming up with a new journal for a specific geographical community represents a lot of effort that takes an enormous amount of time to take off and thus gain visibility. 

For these reasons I’ve been cooking up some ideas for the next RMFQT website. I don’t pretend to say that my colleagues need any shoutouts from my part -I could only be so lucky to produce such fine pieces of research myself- but it wouldn’t hurt to have a more established online presence as a community. 

¡Viva la ciencia Latinoamericana!

XVII Mexican Meeting on Theoretical Physical Chemistry

The RMFQT meeting is a long standing tradition within the Mexican Comp.Chem. community; a tradition that is now transcending our borders as more and more foreign students and researchers take part of this party, for it is a festive occasion indeed. This was the first time the RMFQT was held at a private institute, The Monterrey Institute of Technology.

As in previous years, our lab contributed with a four posters and one talk by yours truly. The posters presented by Raul Torres, Raúl Márquez, Gustavo Mondragón and Dr. Jacinto Sandoval whose pictures you can spot below in the gallery. 

My talk was on the collaborative nature of Comp.Chem. and our particular interactions with the organic synthesis lab of Dr. Moisés Romero. The published papers discussed in the talk can be found in Tetrahedron (post), PCCP (post), and some unpublished results that can be read as a preprint in

I had the pleasure to meet and interact with old friends and make new ones like Dr. Julio Palma from Penn State, whose work on molecular rectifiers is very interesting. Also, I got to interact with many wonderful students who apparently are aware of the existence of this blog. (A big shoutout to M. Joaquina Beltrán and Plinio Cantero, from Chile whose work on DNA mismatch sensors is quite interesting, I look forward to further interacting with their team of research.)

A particular reason for this meeting to be special for me is the fact that I have been now announced as part of the local organizing committee for the next edition in 2019 in Toluca. I was also asked to develop a centralized website and coordinate the social media communication related to the this and other events, starting with the creation of the official Twitter account for our network and the meeting. I’m working on a few ideas, but if you have any suggestions please send them in the comments section. 

See you next year in Toluca!

Calculation of Intermolecular Interactions for Sensors with Biological Applications

Two new papers on the development of chemosensors for different applications were recently published and we had the opportunity to participate in both with the calculation of electronic interactions.

A chemosensor requires to have a measurable response and calculating either that response from first principles based on the electronic structure, or calculating another physicochemical property related to the response are useful strategies in their molecular design. Additionally, electronic structure calculations helps us unveil the molecular mechanisms underlying their response and efficiency, as well as providing a starting point for their continuous improvement.

In the first paper, CdTe Quantum Dots (QD’s) are used to visualize in real time cell-membrane damages through a Gd Schiff base sensitizer (GdQDs). This probe interacts preferentially with a specific sequence motif of NHE-RF2 scaffold protein which is exposed during cell damage. This interactions yields intensely fluorescent droplets which can be visualized in real time with standard instrumentation. Calculations at the level of theory M06-2X/LANL2DZ plus an external double zeta quality basis set on Gd, were employed to characterize the electronic structure of the Gd³⁺ complex, the Quantum Dot and their mutual interactions. The first challenge was to come up with the right multiplicity for Gd³⁺ (an f⁷ ion) for which we had no experimental evidence of their magnetic properties. From searching the literature and talking to my good friend, inorganic chemist Dr. Vojtech Jancik it was more or less clear the multiplicity had to be an octuplet (all seven electrons unpaired).

As can be seen in figure 1a the Gd-N interactions are mostly electrostatic in nature, a fact that is also reflected in the Wiberg bond indexes calculated as 0.16, 0.17 and 0.21 (a single bond would yield a WBI value closer to 1.0).

PM6 optimizations were employed in optimizing the GdQD as a whole (figure 1f) and the MM-UFF to characterize their union to a peptide sequence (figure 2) from which we observed somewhat unsurprisingly that Gd³⁺interacts preferently with the electron rich residues.

This research was published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces. Thanks to Prof. Vojtech Adam from the Mendel University in Brno, Czech Republic for inviting me to collaborate with their interdisciplinary team.

The second sensor I want to write about today is a more closer to home collaboration with Dr. Alejandro Dorazco who developed a fluorescent porphyrin system that becomes chiefly quenched in the presence of Iodide but not with any other halide. This allows for a fast detection of iodide anions, related to some gland diseases, in aqueous samples such as urine. This probe was also granted a patent which technically lists yours-truly as an inventor, cool!

The calculated interaction energy was huge between I⁻ and the porphyrine, which supports the idea of a ionic interaction through which charge transfer interactions quenches the fluorescence of the probe. Figure 3 above shows how the HOMO largely resides on the iodide whereas the LUMO is located on the pi electron system of the porphyrine.

This research was published in Sensors and Actuators B – Chemical.

Chemistry Makes the Chemical

The compound shown below in figure 1 is listed by Aldrich as 4,5,6,7-tetrahydroindole, but is it really?


Fig 1. An indole?

To a hardcore organic chemist it is clear that this is not an indole but a pyrrole because  the lack of aromaticity in the fused ring gives this molecule the same reactivity as 2,3-diethyl pyrrole.  If you search the ChemSpider database for ‘tetrahydroindole’ the search returns the following compound with the identical chemical formula C8H11N but with a different hydrogenation pattern: 2,3,3a,4-Tetrahydro-1H-indole


Fig 2. Also listed as an indole

The real indole, upon an electrophilic attack, behaves as a free enamine yielding the product shown in figure 3 in which the substitution occurs in position 3. This compound cannot undergo an Aromatic Electrophilic Susbstitution since that would imply the formation of a sigma complex which would disrupt the aromaticity.


On the contrary, the corresponding pyrrole is substituted in position 2


These differences in reactivity towards electrophiles are easily rationalized when we plot their HOMO orbitals (calculated at the M062X/def2TZVP level of theory):

If we calculate the Fukui indexes at the same level of theory we get the highest value for susceptibility towards an electrophilic attack as follows: 0.20 for C(3) in indole and 0.25 for C(2) in pyrrole, consistent with the previous reaction schemes.

So, why is it listed as an indole? why would anyone search for it under that name? Nobody thinks about cyclohexane as 1,3,5-trihydrobenzene. According to my good friend and colleague Dr. Moisés Romero most names for heterocyles are kept even after such dramatic chemical changes due to historical and mnemonic reasons even when the reactivity is entirely different. This is only a nomenclature issue that we have inherited from the times of Hantzsch more than a century ago. We’ve become used to keeping the trivial (or should I say arbitrary) names and further use them as derivations but this could pose an epistemological problem if students cannot recognize which heterocycle presents which reactivity.

So, in a nutshell:

Chemistry makes the chemical and not the structure.

A thing we all know but sometimes is overlooked for the sake of simplicity.

Dealing with Spin Contamination

Most organic chemistry deals with closed shell calculations, but every once in a while you want to calculate carbenes, free radicals or radical transition states coming from a homolytic bond break, which means your structure is now open shell.

Closed shell systems are characterized by having doubly occupied molecular orbitals, that is to say the calculation is ‘restricted’: Two electrons with opposite spin occupy the same orbital. In open shell systems, unrestricted calculations have a complete set of orbitals for the electrons with alpha spin and another set for those with beta spin. Spin contamination arises from the fact that wavefunctions obtained from unrestricted calculations are no longer eigenfunctions of the total spin operator <S^2>. In other words, one obtains an artificial mixture of spin states; up until now we’re dealing only with single reference methods. With each step of the SCF procedure the value of <S^2> is calculated and compared to s(s+1) where s is half the number of unpaired electrons (0.75 for a radical and 2.0 for triplets, and so on); if a large deviation between these two numbers is found, the then calculation stops.

Gaussian includes an annihilation step during SCF to reduce the amount of spin contamination but it’s not 100% reliable. Spin contaminated wavefunctions aren’t reliable and lead to errors in geometries, energies and population analyses.

One solution to overcome spin contamination is using Restricted Open Shell calculations (ROHF, ROMP2, etc.) for which singly occupied orbitals is used for the unpaired electrons and doubly occupied ones for the rest. These calculations are far more expensive than the unrestricted ones and energies for the unpaired electrons (the interesting ones) are unreliable, specially spin polarization is lost since dynamical correlation is hardly accounted for. The IOP(5/14=2) in Gaussian uses the annihilated wavefunction for the population analysis if acceptable but since Mulliken’s method is not reliable either I don’t advice it anyway. 

The case of DFT is different since rho.alpha and rho.beta can be separated (similarly to the case of unrestricted ab initio calculations), but the fact that both densities are built of Kohn-Sham orbitals and not true canonical orbitals, compensates the contamination somehow. That is not to say that it never shows up in DFT calculations but it is usually less severe, of course for the case of hybrid functional the more HF exchange is included the more important spin contamination may become. 

So, in short, for spin contaminated wavefunctions you want to change from restricted to unrestricted and if that doesn’t work then move to Restricted Open Shell; if using DFT you can use the same scheme and also try changing from hybrid to pure orbitals at the cost of CPU time. There is a last option which is using spin projection methods but I’ll discuss that in a following post. 

Grimme’s Dispersion DFT-D3 in Gaussian #CompChem

I was just asked if it is possible to perform DFT-D3 calculations in Gaussian and my first answer was to use the following  keyword:


which is available in G16 and G09 only in revision D, apparently.

There are also some overlays that can be used to invoke the use dispersion in various scenarios:

IOp(3/74=x) Exchange and Correlation Potentials





DSD-PBEP86 (double hybrid, DFT-D3).


B2PLYP-D3 (double hybrid, DFT-D3).

B97-D (DFT-D3).

IOp(3/76=x) Mixing of HF and DFT.

-33 PW6B95 and PW6B95-D3 coefficients.

IOp(3/124=x) Empirical dispersion term.




Force dispersion type 3 (Grimme DFT-D3).

Force dispersion type 4 (Grimme DFT-D3(BJ)).

Force dispersion type 5 (Grimme D3, PM7 version).


The D3 correction method of Grimme defines the van der Waals energy like:

$\displaystyle E_{\rm disp} = -\frac{1}{2} \sum_{i=1}^{N_{at}} \sum_{j=1}^{N_{at...
...{6ij}} {r_{ij,{L}}^6} +f_{d,8}(r_{ij,L})\,\frac{C_{8ij}} {r_{ij,L}^8} \right ),$

where coefficients $ C_{6ij}$ are adjusted depending on the geometry of atoms i and j. The damping D3 function for is:

$\displaystyle f_{d,n}(r_{ij}) = \frac{s_n}{1+6(r_{ij}/(s_{R,n}R_{0ij}))^{-\alpha_{n}}},$

where the values of s are adjustable parameters fit for the exchange-correlation functionals used in each calculation.

New paper in PCCP: CCl3 reduced to CH3 through σ-holes #CompChem

I found it surprising that the trichloromethyl group could be chemically reduced into a methyl group quite rapidly in the presence of thiophenol, but once again a failed reaction in the lab gave us the opportunity to learn some nuances about the chemical reactivity of organic compounds. Even more surprising was the fact that this reduction occured through a mechanism in which chlorine atoms behave as electrophiles and not as nucleophiles.

We proposed the mechanism shown in figure 1 to be consistent with the 1H-NMR kinetic experiment (Figure 2) which shows the presence of the intermediary sulfides and leads to the observed phenyl-disulfide as the only isolable byproduct. The proposed mechanism invokes the presence of σ-holes on chlorine atoms to justify the attack of thiophenolate towards the chlorine atom leaving a carbanion behind during the first step. The NMR spectra were recorded at 195K which implies that the energy barriers had to be very low; the first step has a ~3kcal/mol energy barrier at this temperature.



Figure 1 – Calculated mechanism BMK/6-31G(d,p) sigma holes are observed on Cl atoms


1H NMR of the chemical reduction of the trichloromethyl group. Sulfide 4 is the only observed byproduct

To calculate these energy barriers we employed the BMK functional as implemented in Gaussian09. This functional came highly recommended to this purpose and I gotta say it delivered! The optimized geometries of all transition states and intermediaries were then taken to an MP2 single point upon which the maximum electrostatic potential on each atom (Vmax) was calculated with MultiWFN. In figure 3 we can observe the position and Vmax value of σ-holes on chlorine atoms as suggested by the mapping of electrostatic potential on the electron density of various compounds.

We later ran the same MP2 calculations on other CCl3 groups and found that the binding to an electron withdrawing group is necessary for a σ-hole to be present. (This fact was already present in the literature, of course, but reproducing it served us to validate our methodology.)


Figure 3 – Sigma holes found on other CCl3 containing compounds

We are pleased to have this work published in PhysChemChemPhys. Thanks to Dr. Moisés Romero for letting us into his laboratory and to Guillermo Caballero for his hard work both in the lab and behind the computer; Guillermo is now bound to Cambridge to get his PhD, we wish him every success possible in his new job and hope to see him again in a few years, I’m sure he will make a good job at his new laboratory.

New paper in Tetrahedron #CompChem “Why U don’t React?”

Literature in synthetic chemistry is full of reactions that do occur but very little or no attention is payed to those that do not proceed. The question here is what can we learn from reactions that are not taking place even when our chemical intuition tells us they’re feasible? Is there valuable knowledge that can be acquired by studying the ‘anti-driving force’ that inhibits a reaction? This is the focus of a new manuscript recently published by our research group in Tetrahedron (DOI: 10.1016/j.tet.2016.05.058) which was the basis of Guillermo Caballero’s BSc thesis.



It is well known in organic chemistry that if a molecular structure has the possibility to be aromatic it can somehow undergo an aromatization process to achieve this more stable state. During some experimental efforts Guillermo Caballero found two compounds that could be easily regarded as non-aromatic tautomers of a substituted pyridine but which were not transformed into the aromatic compound by any means explored; whether by treatment with strong bases, or through thermal or photochemical reaction conditions.


These results led us to investigate the causes that inhibits these aromatization reactions to occur and here is where computational chemistry took over. As a first approach we proposed two plausible reaction mechanisms for the aromatization process and evaluated them with DFT transition state calculations at the M05-2x/6-31+G(d,p)//B3LYP/6-31+G(d,p) levels of theory. The results showed that despite the aromatic tautomers are indeed more stable than their corresponding non-aromatic ones, a high activation free energy is needed to reach the transition states. Thus, the barrier heights are the first reason why aromatization is being inhibited; there just isn’t enough thermal energy in the environment for the transformation to occur.


But this is only the proximal cause, we went then to search for the distal causes (i.e. the reasons behind the high energy of the barriers). The second part of the work was then the calculation of the delocalization energies and frontier molecular orbitals for the non-aromatic tautomers at the HF/cc-pVQZ level of theory to get insights for the large barrier heights. The energies showed a strong electron delocalization of the nitrogen’s lone pair to the oxygen atom in the carbonyl group. Such delocalization promoted the formation of an electron corridor formed with frontier and close-to-frontier molecular orbitals, resembling an extended push-pull effect. The hydrogen atoms that could promote the aromatization process are shown to be chemically inaccessible.


Further calculations for a series of analogous compounds showed that the dimethyl amino moiety plays a crucial role avoiding the aromatization process to occur. When this group was changed for a nitro group, theoretical calculations yielded a decrease in the barrier high, enough for the reaction to proceed. Electronically, the bonding electron corridor is interrupted due to a pull-pull effect that was assessed through the delocalization energies.

The identity of the compounds under study was assessed through 1H, 13C-NMR and 2D NMR experiments HMBC, HMQC so we had to dive head long into experimental techniques to back our calculations.

The “art” of finding Transition States Part 2

Last week we posted some insights on finding Transitions States in Gaussian 09 in order to evaluate a given reaction mechanism. A stepwise methodology is tried to achieve and this time we’ll wrap the post with two flow charts trying to synthesize the information given. It must be stressed that knowledge about the chemistry of the reaction is of paramount importance since G09 cannot guess the structure connecting two minima on its own but rather needs our help from our chemical intuition. So, without further ado here is the remainder of Guillermo’s post.


METHOD 3. QST3. For this method, you provide the coordinates of your reagents, products and TS (in that order) and G09 uses the QST3 method to find the first order saddle point. As for QST2 the numbering scheme must match for all the atoms in your three sets of coordinates, again, use the connection editor to verify it. Here is an example of the input file.

link 0
--blank line--
#p b3lyp/6-31G(d,p) opt=(qst3,calcfc) geom=connectivity freq=noraman
--blank line--
Charge Multiplicity
Coordinates of reagents
--blank line—
Charge Multiplicity
Coordinates of products
--blank line--
Charge Multiplicity
Coordinates of TS
--blank line---

As I previously mentioned, it happens that you find a first order saddle point but does not correspond to the TS you want, you find an imaginary vibration that is not the one for the bond you are forming or breaking. For these cases, I suggest you to take that TS structure and manually modify the region that is causing you trouble, then use method 2.

METHOD 4. When the previous methods fail to yield your desired TS, the brute force way is to acquire the potential energy surface (PES) and visually locate your possible TS. The task is to perform a rigid PES scan, for this, the molecular structure must be defined using z-matrix. Here is an example of the input file.

link 0
--blank line--
#p b3lyp/6-31G(d,p) scan test geom=connectivity
--blank line--
Charge Multiplicity
Z-matrix of reagents (or products)
--blank line--

In the Z-matrix section you must specify which variables (B, A or D) you want to modify. First, locate the variables you want to modify (distance B, angle A, or dihedral angle D). Then modify those lines within the Z-matrix, here is an example.

B1       1.41     3          0.05
A1       104.5   2          1.0

What you are specifying with this is that the variable B1 (a distance) is going to be stepped 3 times by 0.05. Then variable A1 (an angle) is going to be stepped 2 times by 1.0. Thus, a total of 12 energy evaluations will be performed. At the end of the calculation open the .log file in gaussview and in Results choose the Scan… option. This will open a 3D surface where you should locate the saddle point, this is an educated guess, so take the structure you think corresponds to your TS and use it for method 2.

I have not fully explored this method so I encourage you to go to and thoroughly review it.

Once you have found your TS structure and via the imaginary vibration confirmed that is the one you are looking for the next step is to verify that your TS connects both your reagents and products in the potential energy surface. For this, an Intrinsic Reaction Coordinate (IRC) calculation must be performed. Here is an example of the input file for the IRC.

link 0
--blank line--
#p b3lyp/6-31G(d,p) irc=calcfc geom=connectivity
--blank line--
Charge Multiplicity
Coordinates of TS
--blank line--

With this input, you ask for an IRC calculation, the default numbers of steps are 20 for each side of your TS in the PES; you must specify the coordinates of your TS or take them from the .chk file of your optimization. In addition, an initial force constant calculation must be made. It often occurs that the calculation fails in the correction step, thus, for complicated cases I hardly suggest to use irc=calcall, this will consume very long time (even days) but there is a 95% guaranty. If the number of points is insufficient you can put more within the route section, here is such an example for a complicated case.

link 0
--blank line--
#p b3lyp/6-31G(d,p) irc=(calcall,maxpoints=80) geom=connectivity
--blank line--
Charge Multiplicity
Coordinates of TS
--blank line--

With this route section, you are asking to perform an IRC calculation with 80 points on each side of the PES, calculating the force constants at every point. For an even complicated case try adding the scf=qc keyword in the route section, quadratic convergence often works better for IRC calculations.

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