An interfacial mechanism for cloud droplet formation on organic aerosols

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Science  25 Mar 2016:
Vol. 351, Issue 6280, pp. 1447-1450
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad4889

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Organic contributions to cloud theory

Current theories about the formation of cloud droplets from aerosol particles containing organic components assume that the organic molecules are distributed throughout the droplet. Ruehl et al. show that this assumption is not always correct (see the Perspective by Noziere). During droplet nucleation, droplet diameters were 50% larger than predicted by the standard model. This suggests that the organic particles reside in a surface layer rather than in the bulk of the droplet. Models that neglect organic surface activity will thus underestimate how well organic-rich particles seed clouds.

Science, this issue p. 1447; see also p. 1396


Accurate predictions of aerosol/cloud interactions require simple, physically accurate parameterizations of the cloud condensation nuclei (CCN) activity of aerosols. Current models assume that organic aerosol species contribute to CCN activity by lowering water activity. We measured droplet diameters at the point of CCN activation for particles composed of dicarboxylic acids or secondary organic aerosol and ammonium sulfate. Droplet activation diameters were 40 to 60% larger than predicted if the organic was assumed to be dissolved within the bulk droplet, suggesting that a new mechanism is needed to explain cloud droplet formation. A compressed film model explains how surface tension depression by interfacial organic molecules can alter the relationship between water vapor supersaturation and droplet size (i.e., the Köhler curve), leading to the larger diameters observed at activation.

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