CASSCF and CASPT2 studies on the reaction mechanism of the photochromic ring-opening process of a spiropyran (SP) (1',3',3'-trimethylspiro-[2H-1-benzopyran-2,2'-indoline], also known as BIPS) have been performed and possible excited-state C-O (and C-N) bond cleavage pathways and S1-to-S0 nonadiabatic transition channels have been explored. (1) The C-O bond dissociation in SP does not follow a conical-intersection mechanism that has been proposed in a model study with a simplified benzopyran. The CASSCF-optimized crossing points are actually avoided crossings with a large S1-S0 energy gap at the CASPT2 level; thus, they could not act as efficient S1-to-S0 funnels. (2) C-O bond cleavage paths on S1 leading to both the CCC (cis-cis-cis with respect to the configuration around α, β, γ) and TCC (trans-cis-cis) intermediates of merocyanine (MC) are barrierless, in line with the experimentally observed ultrafast formation of MC. (3) An unexpected low-energy hydrogen-out-of-plane (HOOP) valley on the (π→σ*) surface was located not far from the C-O bond cleavage path and was suggested to be an efficient S1-to-S0 nonadiabatic decay channel. Triggered by the active HOOP mode, the molecule can easily access the S1-HOOP valley and then make a transition to the S0 surface through the narrow S1-S0 gap that exists in an extended region. Nonadiabatic decay through a conical intersection on C-N dissociation path as well as the HOOP funnel is responsible for high internal conversion yields of SP. These findings shedding light on the complex mechanism of SP-MC interconversion provide fundamental information for design spiropyran-based photochromic devices.
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