The study of heterogeneous catalytic reactions remains a major challenge because it involves a complex network of reaction steps with various intermediates. If the vibrational spectra of individual molecules could be monitored in real time, one could characterize the structures of the intermediates and the time scales of reaction steps without ensemble averaging. Surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) spectroscopy does provide vibrational spectra with single-molecule sensitivity, but typical single-molecule SERS signals exhibit spatial heterogeneities and temporal fluctuations, making them difficult to be used in single-molecule kinetics studies. Here we show that SERS can monitor the single-molecule catalytic reactions in real time. The surface-immobilized reactants placed at the junctions of well-defined nanoparticle-thin film structures produce time-resolved SERS spectra with discrete, step-transitions of photoproducts. We interpret that such SERS-steps correspond to the reaction events of individual molecules occurring at the SERS hotspot. The analyses of the yield, dynamics, and the magnitude of such SERS steps, along with the associated spectral characteristics, fully support our claim. In addition, a model that is based on plasmonic field enhancement and surface photochemistry reproduces the key features of experimental observation. Overall, the result demonstrates that it is possible, under well-controlled conditions, to differentiate the chemical and physical processes contributing to the single-molecule SERS signals, and thus shows the use of single-molecule SERS as a tool for studying the metal-catalyzed organic reactions.
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© 2016 American Chemical Society.
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