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The HOMO-LUMO Gap in Open Shell Calculations. Meaningful or meaningless?


The HOMO – LUMO orbitals are central to the Frontier Molecular Orbital (FMO) Theory devised by Kenichi Fukui back in the fifties. The central tenet of the FMO theory resides on the idea that most of chemical reactivity is dominated by the interaction between these orbitals in an electron donor-acceptor pair, in which the most readily available electrons of the former arise from the HOMO and will land at the LUMO in the latter. The energy difference between the HOMO and LUMO of any chemical species, known as the HOMO-LUMO gap, is a very useful quantity for describing and understanding the photochemistry and photophysics of organic molecules since most of the electronic transitions in the UV-Vis region are dominated by the electron transfer between these two frontier orbitals.

But when we talk about Frontier Orbitals we’re usually referring to their doubly occupied version; in the case of open shell calculations the electron density with α spin is separate from the one with β spin, therefore giving rise to two separate sets of singly occupied orbitals and those in turn have a α-HOMO/LUMO and β-HOMO/LUMO, although SOMO (Singly Occupied Molecular Orbital) is the preferred nomenclature. Most people will then dismiss the HOMO/LUMO question for open shell systems as meaningless because ultimately we are dealing with two different sets of molecular orbitals. Usually the approach is to work backwards when investigating the optical transitions of a, say, organic radical, e.g. by calculating the transitions with such methods like TD-DFT (Time Dependent DFT) and look to the main orbital components of each within the set of α and β densities.

To the people who have asked me this question I strongly suggest to first try Restricted Open calculations, RODFT, which pair all electrons and treat them with identical orbitals and treat the unpaired ones independently. As a consequence, RO calculations and Unrestricted calculations vary due to variational freedom. RO calculations could yield wavefunctions with small to large values of spin contamination, so beware. Or just go straight to TDDFT calculations with hybrid orbitals which include a somewhat large percentage of HF exchange and polarized basis sets, but to always compare results to experimental values, if available, since DFT based calculations are Kohn-Sham orbitals which are defined for non-interacting electrons so the energy can be biased. Performing CI or CASSCF calculations is almost always prohibitive for systems of chemical interest but of course they would be the way to go.

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No, seriously, why can’t orbitals be observed?


The concept of electronic orbital has become such a useful and engraved tool in understanding chemical structure and reactivity that it has almost become one of those things whose original meaning has been lost and replaced for a utilitarian concept, one which is not bad in itself but that may lead to some wrong conclusions when certain fundamental facts are overlooked.

Last week a wrote -what I thought was- a humorous post on this topic because a couple of weeks ago a viewpoint in JPC-A was published by Pham and Gordon on the possibility of observing molecular orbitals through microscopy methods, which elicited a ‘seriously? again?‘ reaction from me, since I distinctly remember the Nature article by Zuo from the year 2000 when I just had entered graduate school. The article is titled “direct observation of d-orbital holes.” We discussed this paper in class and the discussion it prompted was very interesting at various levels: for starters, the allegedly observed d-orbital was strikingly similar to a dz2, which we had learned in class (thanks, prof. Carlos Amador!) that is actually a linear combination of d(z2-x2) and d(z2-y2) orbitals, a mathematical -lets say- trick to conform to spectroscopic observations.

Pham and Gordon are pretty clear in their first paragraph: “The wave function amplitude Ψ*Ψ is interpreted as the probability density. All observable atomic or molecular properties are determined by the probability and a corresponding quantum mechanical operator, not by the wave function itself. Wave functions, even exact wave functions, are not observables.” There is even another problem, about which I wrote a post long time ago: orbitals are non-unique, this means that I could get a set of orbitals by solving the Schrödinger equation for any given molecule and then perform a unit transformation on them (such as renormalizing them, re-orthonormalizing them to get a localized version, or even hybridizing them) and the electronic density derived from them would be the same! In quantum mechanical terms this means that the probability density associated with the wave function internal product, Ψ*Ψ, is not changed upon unit transformations; why then would a specific version be “observed” under a microscope? As Pham and Gordon state more eloquently it has to do with the Density of States (DOS) rather than with the orbitals. Furthermore, an orbital, or more precisely a spinorbital, is conveniently (in math terms) separated into a radial, an angular and a spin component R(r)Ylm(θ,φ)σ(α,β) with the angular part given by the spherical harmonic functions Ylm(θ,φ), which in turn -when plotted in spherical coordinates- create the famous lobes we all chemists know and love. Zuo’s observation claim was based on the resemblance of the observed density to the angular part of an atomic orbital. Another thing, orbitals have phases, no experimental observation claims to have resolved those.

Now, I may be entering a dangerous comparison but, can you observe a 2? If you say you just did, well, that “2” is just a symbol used to represent a quantity: two, the cardinality of a set containing two elements. You might as well depict such quantity as “II” or “⋅⋅” but still cannot observe “a two”. (If any mathematician is reading this, please, be gentle.) I know a number and a function are different, sorry if I’m just rambling here and overextending a metaphor.

Pretending to having observed an orbital through direct experimental methods is to neglect the Born interpretation of the wave function, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and even Schrödinger’s cat! (I know, I know, Schrödinger came up with this gedankenexperiment in order to refute the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, but it seems like after all the cat is still not out of the box!)

So, the take home message from the viewpoint in JPC is that molecular properties are defined by the expected values of a given wave function for a specific quantum mechanical operator of the property under investigation and not from the wave function itself. Wave functions are not observables and although some imaging techniques seem to accomplish a formidable task the physical impossibility hints to a misinterpretation of facts.

I think I’ll write more about this in a future post but for now, my take home message is to keep in mind that orbitals are wave functions and therefore are not more observable (as in imaging) than a partition function is in statistical mechanics.

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