Adsorption involves molecules colliding at the surface of a solid and losing their incidence energy by traversing a dynamical pathway to equilibrium. The interactions responsible for energy loss generally include both chemical bond formation (chemisorption) and nonbonding interactions (physisorption). In this work, we present experiments that revealed a quantitative energy landscape and the microscopic pathways underlying a molecule's equilibration with a surface in a prototypical system: CO adsorption on Au(111). Although the minimum energy state was physisorbed, initial capture of the gas-phase molecule, dosed with an energetic molecular beam, was into a metastable chemisorption state. Subsequent thermal decay of the chemisorbed state led molecules to the physisorption minimum. We found, through detailed balance, that thermal adsorption into both binding states was important at all temperatures.
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