The observation and control of interweaving spin, charge, orbital, and structural degrees of freedom in materials on ultrafast time scales reveal exotic quantum phenomena and enable new active forms of nanotechnology. Bonding is the prime example of the relation between electronic and nuclear degrees of freedom. We report direct evidence illustrating that photoexcitation can be used for ultrafast control of the breaking and recovery of bonds in solids on unprecedented time scales, near the limit for nuclear motions. We describe experimental and theoretical studies of IrTe2 using femtosecond electron diffraction and density functional theory to investigate bonding instability. Ir-Ir dimerization shows an unexpected fast dissociation and recovery due to the filling of the antibonding dxy orbital. Bond length changes of 20% in IrTe2 are achieved by effectively addressing the bonds directly through this relaxation process. These results could pave the way to ultrafast switching between metastable structures by photoinduced manipulation of the relative degree of bonding in this manner.
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