A single molecular formula can represent a number of molecular isomers. Each isomer is a local minimum on the energy surface (called the potential energy surface) created from the total energy (i.e., the electronic energy, plus the repulsion energy between the nuclei) as a function of the coordinates of all the nuclei. A stationary point is a geometry such that the derivative of the energy with respect to all displacements of the nuclei is zero. A local (energy) minimum is a stationary point where all such displacements lead to an increase in energy. The local minimum that is lowest is called the global minimum and corresponds to the most stable isomer. If there is one particular coordinate change that leads to a decrease in the total energy in both directions, the stationary point is a transition structure and the coordinate is the reaction coordinate. This process of determining stationary points is called geometry optimization.
The determination of molecular structure by geometry optimization became routine only after efficient methods for calculating the first derivatives of the energy with respect to all atomic coordinates became available. Evaluation of the related second derivatives allows the prediction of vibrational frequencies if harmonic motion is estimated. More importantly, it allows for the characterization of stationary points. The frequencies are related to the eigenvalues of the Hessian matrix, which contains second derivatives. If the eigenvalues are all positive, then the frequencies are all real and the stationary point is a local minimum. If one eigenvalue is negative (i.e., an imaginary frequency), then the stationary point is a transition structure. If more than one eigenvalue is negative, then the stationary point is a more complex one, and is usually of little interest. When one of these is found, it is necessary to move the search away from it if the experimenter is looking solely for local minima and transition structures.
The total energy is determined by approximate solutions of the time-dependent Schrödinger equation, usually with no relativistic terms included, and by making use of the Born–Oppenheimer approximation, which allows for the separation of electronic and nuclear motions, thereby simplifying the Schrödinger equation. This leads to the evaluation of the total energy as a sum of the electronic energy at fixed nuclei positions and the repulsion energy of the nuclei. A notable exception are certain approaches called direct quantum chemistry, which treat electrons and nuclei on a common footing. Density functional methods and semi-empirical methods are variants on the major theme. For very large systems, the relative total energies can be compared using molecular mechanics. The ways of determining the total energy to predict molecular structures are:
Read more about this topic: Computational Chemistry
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