Chemical processes mostly happen in fluid environments where reaction partners encounter via diffusion. The bimolecular encounters take place at a nanosecond time scale. The chemical environment (e.g., solvent molecules, (counter)ions) has a decisive influence on the reactivity as it determines the contact time between two molecules and affects the energetics. For understanding reactivity at an atomic level and at the appropriate dynamic time scale, it is crucial to combine matching experimental and theoretical data. Here, we have utilized all-atom molecular-dynamics simulations for accessing the key time scale (nanoseconds) using a QM/MM-Hamiltonian. Ion pairs consisting of a radical ion and its counterion are ideal systems to assess the theoretical predictions because they reflect dynamics at an appropriate time scale when studied by temperature-dependent EPR spectroscopy. We have investigated a diketone radical anion with its tetra-ethylammonium counterion. We have established a funnel-like transition path connecting two (equivalent) complexation sites. The agreement between the molecular-dynamics simulation and the experimental data presents a new paradigm for ion–ion interactions. This study exemplarily demonstrates the impact of the molecular environment on the topological states of reaction intermediates and how these states can be consistently elucidated through the combination of theory and experiment. We anticipate that our findings will contribute to the prediction of bimolecular transformations in the condensed phase with relevance to chemical synthesis, polymers, and biological activity.
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