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Estimation of pKa Values through Local Electrostatic Potential Calculations

Calculating the pKa value for a Brønsted acid is very hard, like really hard. A full thermodynamic cycle (fig. 1) needs to be calculated along with the high-accuracy solvation free energy for each of the species under consideration, not to mention the use of expensive methods which will be reviewed here in another post in two weeks time.

Fig 1. Thermodynamic Cycle for the pKa calculation of any given Bronsted acid, HA

Finding descriptors that help us circumvent the need for such sophisticated calculations can help great deal in estimating the pKa value of any given acid. We’ve been interested in the reactivity of σ-hole bearing groups in the past and just like Halogen, Tetrel, Pnicogen and Chalcogen bonds, Hydrogen bonds are highly directional and their strength depends on the polarization of the O-H bond. Therefore, we suggested the use of the maximum surface electrostatic potential (VS,max) on the acid hydrogen atom of carboxylic acids as a descriptor for the strength of their interaction with water, the first step  in the deprotonation process. 

We selected six basis sets; five density functionals; the MP2 method for a total of thirty-six levels of theory to optimize and calculate VS,max on thirty carboxylic acids for a grand total of 1,080 wavefunctions, which were later passed onto MultiWFN (all calculations were taken with PCM = water). Correlation with the experimental pKa values showed a great correlation across the levels of theory (R2 > 0.9), except for B3LYP. Still, the best correlations were obtained with LC-wPBE/cc-pVDZ and wB97XD/cc-pVDZ. From this latter level of theory the linear correlation yielded the following equation:

pKa = -0.2185(VS,max) + 16.1879

Differences in pKa turned out to be less than 0.5 units, which is remarkable for such a straightforward method; bear in mind that calculation of full thermodynamic cycles above chemical accuracy (1.0 kcal/mol) yields pKa differences above 1.0 units.

We then took this equation for a test with 10 different carboxylic acids and the prediction had a correlation of 98% (fig. 2)

fig 2. calculated v experimental pKa values for a test set of 10 carboxylic acids from equation above

I think this method can really catch on for a quick way to predict the pKa values of any carboxylic acid imaginable. We’re now working on the model extension to other groups (i.e. Bronsted bases) and putting together a black-box workflow so as to make it even more accessible and straightforward to use. 

We’ve recently published this work in the journal Molecules, an open access publication. Thanks to Prof. Steve Scheiner for inviting us to participate in the special issue devoted to tetrel bonding. Thanks to Guillermo Caballero for the inception of this project and to Dr. Jacinto Sandoval for taking the time from his research in photosynthesis to work on this pet project of ours and of course the rest of the students (Gustavo Mondragón, Marco Diaz, Raúl Torres) whose hard work produced this work.


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!

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.

Calculating NMR shifts – Short and Long Ways

Nuclear Magnetic Resonance is a most powerful tool for elucidating the structure of diamagnetic compounds, which makes it practically universal for the study of organic chemistry, therefore the calculation of 1H and 13C chemical shifts, as well as coupling constants, is extremely helpful in the assignment of measured signals on a spectrum to an actual functional group.

Several packages offer an additive (group contribution) empirical approach to the calculation of chemical shifts (ChemDraw, Isis, ChemSketch, etc.) but they are usually only partially accurate for the simplest molecules and no insight is provided for the more interesting effects of long distance interactions (vide infra) so quantum mechanical calculations are really the way to go.

With Gaussian the calculation is fairly simple just use the NMR keyword in the route section in order to calculate the NMR shielding tensors for relevant nuclei. Bear in mind that an optimized structure with a large basis set is required in order to get the best results, also the use of an implicit solvation model goes a long way. The output displays the value of the total isotropic magnetic shielding for each nucleus in ppm (image taken from the Gaussian website):

Magnetic shielding (ppm):
  1  C    Isotropic =    57.7345   Anisotropy =   194.4092
   XX=    48.4143   YX=      .0000   ZX=      .0000
   XY=      .0000   YY=   -62.5514   ZY=      .0000
   XZ=      .0000   YZ=      .0000   ZZ=   187.3406
  2  H    Isotropic =    23.9397   Anisotropy =     5.2745
   XX=    27.3287   YX=      .0000   ZX=      .0000
   XY=      .0000   YY=    24.0670   ZY=      .0000
   XZ=      .0000   YZ=      .0000   ZZ=    20.4233

Now, here is why this is the long way; in order for these values to be meaningful they need to be contrasted with a reference, which experimentally for 1H and 13C  is tetramethylsilane, TMS. This means you have to perform the same calculation for TMS at -preferably- the same level of theory used for the sample and substract the corresponding values for either H or C accordingly. Only then the chemical shifts will read as something we can all remember from basic analytical chemistry class.

GaussView 6.0 provides a shortcut; open the Results menu, select NMR and in the new window there is a dropdown menu for selecting the nucleus and a second menu for selecting a reference. In the case of hydrogen the available references are TMS calculated with the HF and B3LYP methods. The SCF – GIAO plot will show the assignments to each atom, the integration simulation and a reference curve if desired.

The chemical shifts obtained this far will be a good approximation and will allow you to assign any peaks in any given spectrum but still not be completely accurate though. The reasons behind the numerical deviations from calculated and experimental values are many, from the chosen method to solvent interactions or basis set limitations, scaling factors are needed; that’s when you can ask the Cheshire Cat which way to go

If you don’t know where you are going any road will get you there.

Lewis Carroll – Alice in Wonderland

Well, not really. The Chemical Shift Repository for computed NMR scaling factors, with Coupling Constants Added Too (aka CHESHIRE CCAT) provides with straight directions on how to correct your computed NMR chemical shifts according to the level of theory without the need to calculate the NMR shielding tensor for the reference compound (usually TMS as pointed out earlier). In a nutshell, the group of Prof. Dean Tantillo (UC Davis) has collected a large number of isotropic magnetic shielding values and plotted them against experimental chemical shifts. Just go to their scaling factors page and check all their linear regressions and use the values that more closely approach to your needs, there are also all kinds of scripts and spreadsheets to make your job even easier. Of course, if you make use of their website don’t forget to give the proper credit by including these references in your paper.

We’ve recently published an interesting study in which the 1H – 19F coupling constants were calculated via the long way (I was just recently made aware of CHESHIRE CCAT by Dr. Jacinto Sandoval who knows all kinds of web resources for computational chemistry calculations) as well as their conformational dependence for some substituted 2-aza-carbazoles (fig. 1).


Journal of Molecular Structure Vol 1176, 15 January 2019, Pages 562-566

The paper is published in the Journal of Molecular Structure. In this study we used the GIAO NMR computations to assign the peaks on an otherwise cluttered spectrum in which the signals were overlapping due to conformational variations arising from the rotation of the C-C bond which re-orients the F atoms in the fluorophenyl grou from the H atom in the carbazole. After the calculations and the scans were made assigning the peaks became a straightforward task even without the use of scaling factors. We are now expanding these calculations to more complex systems and will contrast both methods in this space. Stay tuned.

Post Calculation Addition of Empirical Dispersion – Fixing interaction energies

Calculation of interaction energies is one of those things people are more concerned with and is also something mostly done wrong. The so called ‘gold standard‘ according to Pavel Hobza for calculating supramolecular interaction energies is the CCSD(T)/CBS level of theory, which is highly impractical for most cases beyond 50 or so light atoms. Basis set extrapolation methods and inclusion of electronic correlation with MP2 methods yield excellent results but they are not nonetheless almost as time consuming as CC. DFT methods in general are terrible and still are the most widely used tools for electronic structure calculations due to their competitive computing times and the wide availability of schemes for including  terms which help describe various kinds of interactions. The most important ingredients needed to get a decent to good interaction energies values calculated with DFT methods are correlation and dispersion. The first part can be recreated by a good correlation functional and the use of empirical dispersion takes care of the latter shortcoming, dramatically improving the results for interaction energies even for lousy functionals such as the infamous B3LYP. The results still wont be of benchmark quality but still the deviations from the gold standard will be shortened significantly, thus becoming more quantitatively reliable.

There is an online tool for calculating and adding the empirical dispersion from Grimme’s group to a calculation which originally lacked it. In the link below you can upload your calculation, select the basis set and functionals employed originally in it, the desired damping model and you get in return the corrected energy through a geometrical-Counterpoise correction and Grimme’s empirical dispersion function, D3, of which I have previously written here.

The gCP-D3 Webservice is located at:

The platform is entirely straightforward to use and it works with xyz, turbomole, orca and gaussian output files. The concept is very simple, a both gCP and D3 contributions are computed in the selected basis set and added to the uncorrected DFT (or HF) energy (eq. 1)

eq1 (1)

If you’re trying to calculate interaction energies, remember to perform these corrections for every component in your supramolecular assembly (eq. 2)


Here’s a screen capture of the outcome after uploading a G09 log file for the simplest of options B3LYP/6-31G(d), a decomposed energy is shown at the left while a 3D interactive Jmol rendering of your molecule is shown at the right. Also, various links to the literature explaining the details of these calculations are available in the top menu.


I’m currently writing a book chapter on methods for calculating ineraction energies so expect many more posts like this. A special mention to Dr. Jacinto Sandoval, who is working with us as a postdoc researcher, for bringing this platform to my attention, I was apparently living under a rock.


DFT Textbook in Spanish by Dr. José Cerón-Carrasco

Today’s science is published mostly in English, which means that non-English speakers must first tackle the language barrier before sharing their scientific ideas and results with the community; this blog is a proof that non-native-English speakers such as myself cannot outreach a large audience in another language.


For young scientists learning English is a must nowadays but it shouldn’t shy students away from learning science in their own native tongues. To that end, the noble effort by Dr. José Cerón-Carrasco from Universidad Católica San Antonio de Murcia, in Spain, of writing a DFT textbook in Spanish constitutes a remarkable resource for Spanish-speaking computational chemistry students because it is not only a clear and concise introduction to ab initio and DFT methods but because it was also self published and written directly in Spanish. His book “Introducción a los métodos DFT: Descifrando B3LYP sin morir en el intento” is now available in Amazon. Dr. Cerón-Carrasco was very kind to invite me to write a prologue for his book, I’m very thankful to him for this opportunity.

Así que para los estudiantes hispanoparlantes hay ahora un muy valioso recurso para aprender DFT sin morir en el intento gracias al esfuerzo y la mente del Dr. José Pedro Cerón Carrasco a quien le agradezco haberme compartido la primicia de su libro

¡Salud y olé!

Another Great Year at the Lab! 2017

2017 was a complicated year for various reasons here in Mexico (and some personal health issues) but nonetheless I’m very proud of the performance of everyone at the lab whose hard work and great skills keep pushing our research forward.

Four new members joined the team and have presented their work at the national meeting for CompChem for the first time. Also, for the first time, one of my students, Gustavo Mondragón, gave a talk at this meeting with great success about his research on the Fenna Matthews Olson complex of photosynthetic bacteria.

The opportunity to attend WATOC at Munich presented me the great chance to meet wonderful people from around the world and was even kindly and undeservingly invited to write the prologue for an introductory DFT book by Prof. Pedro Cerón from Spain. I hope to Jeep up with the collaborations abroad such as the one with the Mirkin group at Nortgwestern and the one with my dear friend Kunsagi-Mate Sándor at Pecsi Tudomanyegyetem (Hungary), among many others; I’m thankful for their trust in our capabilities.

Two members got their BSc degrees, Marco an Durbis, the latter also single handedly paved the way for us to develop a new research line on the in silico drug developing front; his relentless work has also been praised by the QSAR team at the Institute of Chemistry with which he has collaborated by performing toxicity calculations for the agrochemical industry as well as by designing educational courses aimed to the dissemination of our work and QSAR in general among regulatory offices and potential clients. We’re sad to see him go next fall but at the same time we’re glad to know his scientific skills will further develop.

I cannot thank the team enough: Alejandra Barrera, Gustavo Mondragón, Durbis Castillo, Fernando Uribe, Juan Guzman, Alberto Olmedo, Eduardo Cruz, Ricardo Loaiza and Marco Garcia; may 2018 be a great year for all of you.

And to all the readers thank you for your kind words, I’m glad this little space which is about to become nine years old is regarded as useful; to all of you I wish a great 2018!


Python scripts for calculating Fukui Indexes

One of the most popular posts in this blog has to do with calculating Fukui indexes, however, when dealing with a large number of molecules, our described methodology can become cumbersome since it requires to manually extract the population analysis from two or three different output files and then performing the arithmetic on them separately with a spreadsheet or something.

Our new team member Ricardo Loaiza has written a python script that takes the three aforementioned files and yields a .csv file with the calculated Fukui indexes, and it even points out which of the atoms exhibit the largest values so if you have a large molecule you don’t have to manually check for them. We have also a batch version which takes all the files in any given directory and performs the Fukui calculations for each, provided it can find file triads with the naming requirements described below.

Output files must be named filename.log (the N electrons reference state), filename_plus.log (the state with N+1 electrons) and filename_minus.log (the N-1 electrons state). Another restriction is that so far these scripts only work with NBO population analysis as provided by the NBO3.1 program available in the various versions of Gaussian. I imagine the listing is similar in NBO5.x and NBO6.x and so it should work if you do the population analysis with them.

The syntax for the single molecule version is:

python filename.log filename_minus.log filename_plus.log

For the batch version is:


(Por Lote means In Batch in Spanish.)

These scripts are available via GitHub. We hope you find them useful, and you do please let us know whether here at the comments section or at our GitHub site.

XVI Mexican Meeting on Phys.Chem.

A yearly tradition of this Comp.Chem. lab and many others throughout our nation is to attend the Mexican Meeting on Theoretical Physical Chemistry to share news, progress and also a few drinks and laughs. This year the RMFQT was held in Puebla and although unfortunately I was not able to attend this lab was proudly represented by its current members. Gustavo Mondragón gave a talk about his progress on his photosynthesis research linking to the previous work of María Eugenia Sandoval already presented in previous editions; kudos to Gustavo for performing remarkably and thanks to all those who gave us their valuable feedback and criticism. Also, five posters were presented successfully, I can only thank the entire team for representing our laboratory in such an admirable way, and a special mention to the junior members, I hope this was the first of many scientific events they attend and may you deeply enjoy each one of them.

Among the invited speakers, the RMFQT had the honor to welcome Prof. John Perdew (yes, the P in PBE); the team took the opportunity of getting a lovely picture with him.

Here is the official presentation of the newest members of our group:

Alejandra Barrera (hyperpolarizabilty calculations on hypothetical poly-calyx[n]arenes for the search of NLO materials)


Fernando Uribe (Interaction energy calculations for non-canonical nucleotides)


Juan Guzmán (Reaction mechanisms calculations for catalyzed organic reactions)


We thank the organizing committee for giving us the opportunity to actively participate in this edition of the RMFQT, we eagerly await for next year as every year.


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