Background: The trend for the fabrication of electrical circuits with nanoscale dimensions has led to impressive progress in the field of molecular electronics in the last decade. However, a theoretical description of molecular contacts as the building blocks of future devices is challenging, as it has to combine the properties of Fermi liquids in the leads with charge and phonon degrees of freedom on the molecule. Outside of ab initio schemes for specific set-ups, generic models reveal the characteristics of transport processes. Particularly appealing are descriptions based on transfer rates successfully used in other contexts such as mesoscopic physics and intramolecular electron transfer. However, a detailed analysis of this scheme in comparison with numerically exact solutions is still elusive.
Results: We show that a formulation in terms of transfer rates provides a quantitatively accurate description even in domains of parameter space where strictly it is expected to fail, e.g., at lower temperatures. Typically, intramolecular phonons are distributed according to a voltage driven steady state that can only roughly be captured by a thermal distribution with an effective elevated temperature (heating). An extension of a master equation for the charge–phonon complex, to effectively include the impact of off-diagonal elements of the reduced density matrix, provides very accurate solutions even for stronger electron–phonon coupling.
Conclusion: Rate descriptions and master equations offer a versatile model to describe and understand charge transfer processes through molecular junctions. Such methods are computationally orders of magnitude less expensive than elaborate numerical simulations that, however, provide exact solutions as benchmarks. Adjustable parameters obtained, e.g., from ab initio calculations allow for the treatment of various realizations. Even though not as rigorously formulated as, e.g., nonequilibrium Green’s function methods, they are conceptually simpler, more flexible for extensions, and from a practical point of view provide accurate results as long as strong quantum correlations do not modify the properties of the relevant subunits substantially.