Azobenzene is one of the most ubiquitous photoswitches in photochemistry and a prototypical model for photoisomerizing systems. Despite this, its wavelength-dependent photochemistry has puzzled researchers for decades. Upon excitation to the higher energy ππ* excited state instead of the dipole-forbidden nπ* state, the quantum yield of isomerization from trans- to cis-azobenzene is halved. The difficulties associated with unambiguously resolving this effect both experimentally and theoretically have contributed to lasting controversies regarding the photochemistry of azobenzene. Here, we systematically characterize the dynamic photoreaction pathways of azobenzene by performing first-principles simulations of the nonadiabatic dynamics following excitation to both the ππ* and the nπ* states. We demonstrate that ground-state recovery is mediated by two distinct S1 decay pathways: a reactive twisting pathway and an unreactive planar pathway. Increased preference for the unreactive pathway upon ππ* excitation largely accounts for the wavelength-dependent behavior observed in azobenzene.
Journal or Book Title
Journal of the American Chemical Society