The excited state dynamics of carbonyl carotenoids is very complex because of the coupling of single- and doubly excited states and the possible involvement of intramolecular charge-transfer (ICT) states. In this contribution we employ ultrafast infrared spectroscopy and theoretical computations to investigate the relaxation dynamics of trans-8'-apo-β-carotenal occurring on the picosecond time scale, after excitation in the S2 state. In a (slightly) polar solvent like chloroform, one-dimensional (T1D-IR) and two-dimensional (T2D-IR) transient infrared spectroscopy reveal spectral components with characteristic frequencies and lifetimes that are not observed in nonpolar solvents (cyclohexane). Combining experimental evidence with an analysis of CASPT2//CASSCF ground and excited state minima and energy profiles, complemented with TDDFT calculations in gas phase and in solvent, we propose a photochemical decay mechanism for this system where only the bright single-excited 1Bu(+) and the dark double-excited 2Ag(-) states are involved. Specifically, the initially populated 1Bu(+) relaxes toward 2Ag(-) in 200 fs. In a nonpolar solvent 2Ag(-) decays to the ground state (GS) in 25 ps. In polar solvents, distortions along twisting modes of the chain promote a repopulation of the 1Bu(+) state which then quickly relaxes to the GS (18 ps in chloroform). The 1Bu(+) state has a high electric dipole and is the main contributor to the charge-transfer state involved in the dynamics in polar solvents. The 2Ag(-) → 1Bu(+) population transfer is evidenced by a cross peak on the T2D-IR map revealing that the motions along the same stretching of the conjugated chain on the 2Ag(-) and 1Bu(+) states are coupled.
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