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Thermal cis-trans isomerization of azobenzene studied by path sampling and QM/MM stochastic dynamics
(2017)

Azobenzene-based molecular photoswitches have extensively been applied to biological systems, involving photo-control of peptides, lipids and nucleic acids. The isomerization between the stable trans and the metastable cis state of the azo moieties leads to pronounced changes in shape and other physico-chemical properties of the molecules into which they are incorporated. Fast switching can be induced via transitions to excited electronic states and fine-tuned by a large number of different substituents at the phenyl rings. But a rational design of tailor-made azo groups also requires control of their stability in the dark, the half-lifetime of the cis isomer. In computational chemistry, thermally activated barrier crossing on the ground state Born-Oppenheimer surface can efficiently be estimated with Eyring’s transition state theory (TST) approach; the growing complexity of the azo moiety and a rather heterogeneous environment, however, may render some of the underlying simplifying assumptions problematic.
In this dissertation, a computational approach is established to remove two restrictions at once: the environment is modeled explicitly by employing a quantum mechanical/molecular mechanics (QM/MM) description; and the isomerization process is tracked by analyzing complete dynamical pathways between stable states. The suitability of this description is validated by using two test systems, pure azo benzene and a derivative with electron donating and electron withdrawing substituents (“push-pull” azobenzene). Each system is studied in the gas phase, in toluene and in polar DMSO solvent. The azo molecules are treated at the QM level using a very recent, semi-empirical approximation to density functional theory (density functional tight binding approximation). Reactive pathways are sampled by implementing a version of the so-called transition path sampling method (TPS), without introducing any bias into the system dynamics. By analyzing ensembles of reactive trajectories, the change in isomerization pathway from linear inversion to rotation in going from apolar to polar solvent, predicted by the TST approach, could be verified for the push-pull derivative. At the same time, the mere presence of explicit solvation is seen to broaden the distribution of isomerization pathways, an effect TST cannot account for.
Using likelihood maximization based on the TPS shooting history, an improved reaction coordinate was identified as a sine-cosine combination of the central bend angles and the rotation dihedral, r (ω,α,α′). The computational van’t Hoff analysis for the activation entropies was performed to gain further insight into the differential role of solvent for the case of the unsubstituted and the push-pull azobenzene. In agreement with the experiment, it yielded positive activation entropies for azobenzene in the DMSO solvent while negative for the push-pull derivative, reflecting the induced ordering of solvent around the more dipolar transition state associated to the latter compound. Also, the dynamically corrected rate constants were evaluated using the reactive flux approach where an increase comparable to the experimental one was observed for a high polarity medium for both azobenzene derivatives.