New particle formation in the free troposphere: A question of chemistry and timing

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Science  27 May 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6289, pp. 1109-1112
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad5456

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From neutral to new

Many of the particles in the troposphere are formed in situ, but what fraction of all tropospheric particles do they constitute and how exactly are they made? Bianchi et al. report results from a high-altitude research station. Roughly half of the particles were newly formed by the condensation of highly oxygenated multifunctional compounds. A combination of laboratory results, field measurements, and model calculations revealed that neutral nucleation is more than 10 times faster than ion-induced nucleation, that particle growth rates are size-dependent, and that new particle formation occurs during a limited time window.

Science, this issue p. 1109


New particle formation (NPF) is the source of over half of the atmosphere’s cloud condensation nuclei, thus influencing cloud properties and Earth’s energy balance. Unlike in the planetary boundary layer, few observations of NPF in the free troposphere exist. We provide observational evidence that at high altitudes, NPF occurs mainly through condensation of highly oxygenated molecules (HOMs), in addition to taking place through sulfuric acid–ammonia nucleation. Neutral nucleation is more than 10 times faster than ion-induced nucleation, and growth rates are size-dependent. NPF is restricted to a time window of 1 to 2 days after contact of the air masses with the planetary boundary layer; this is related to the time needed for oxidation of organic compounds to form HOMs. These findings require improved NPF parameterization in atmospheric models.

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