Unexpected Epoxide Formation in the Gas-Phase Photooxidation of Isoprene

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Science  07 Aug 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5941, pp. 730-733
DOI: 10.1126/science.1172910

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Isoprene, a five-carbon diene produced by plants, is the most abundant nonmethane hydrocarbon released into the atmosphere and plays an important role in tropospheric chemistry. Isoprene is also thought to affect climate by acting as a source of atmospheric aerosols. Paulot et al. (p. 730; see the Perspective by Kleindienst) now describe how isoprene may lead to the formation of secondary organic aerosols. In laboratory experiments, the photooxidation of isoprene in low-NO conditions, such as those which occur in vegetated regions far from anthropogenic influence, produced high yields of dihydroxy epoxides, a suspected precursor of the aerosols. This discovery could help to explain some of the more puzzling aspects of isoprene chemistry in remote regions.


Emissions of nonmethane hydrocarbon compounds to the atmosphere from the biosphere exceed those from anthropogenic activity. Isoprene, a five-carbon diene, contributes more than 40% of these emissions. Once emitted to the atmosphere, isoprene is rapidly oxidized by the hydroxyl radical OH. We report here that under pristine conditions isoprene is oxidized primarily to hydroxyhydroperoxides. Further oxidation of these hydroxyhydroperoxides by OH leads efficiently to the formation of dihydroxyepoxides and OH reformation. Global simulations show an enormous flux—nearly 100 teragrams of carbon per year—of these epoxides to the atmosphere. The discovery of these highly soluble epoxides provides a missing link tying the gas-phase degradation of isoprene to the observed formation of organic aerosols.

  • Present address: Institute for Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences, Goethe University, Frankfurt am Main, Germany.

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