Scientists uncover new clues about the climate and health effects of atmospheric particles

Research Excellence | Strategy 9: Knowledge Exchange
Theme: Innovation
Photo credit: Roman Khripkov

Peering inside common atmospheric particles is providing important clues to their climate and health effects, according to a new study by University of British Columbia chemists. Secondary organic aerosol (SOA) particles are ubiquitous in the atmosphere and play an important role in air quality and climate. They can add to air pollution and damage lungs, and help deflect solar radiation or aid cloud formation.

Different types of SOA can mix together in a single particle and their environmental impacts are governed by the new particles’ physical and chemical properties, particularly the number of phases—or states—it can exist in.

In a new research letter published in the open access journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, an international team of researchers has found that particles with two phases can form when different types of SOA mix. The finding could help improve current models predicting SOA climate and health effects.

“Up until now, models have often assumed that when SOA types mix into the same particle, they have just one phase. But we found that’s not always the case, meaning current models might not correctly capture some of these effects,” says lead author Dr. Fabian Mahrt, a postdoctoral fellow at the Paul Scherrer Institute and UBC Department of Chemistry. The work was funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program.

The research team hopes other scientists will now extend the number of SOA mixtures experimentally, as well as include the findings in atmospheric models going forward.

“The study is evidence that we need to look at this phenomenon more carefully to get the full picture. We have one more piece of the puzzle but we’re not necessarily finished the jigsaw yet,” says Dr. Mahrt.

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