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Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Feb 19;110(8):2723-8. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1204838110. Epub 2013 Feb 4.

Surfactants from the gas phase may promote cloud droplet formation.

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1
Department of Chemical Engineering, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027, USA.

Abstract

Clouds, a key component of the climate system, form when water vapor condenses upon atmospheric particulates termed cloud condensation nuclei (CCN). Variations in CCN concentrations can profoundly impact cloud properties, with important effects on local and global climate. Organic matter constitutes a significant fraction of tropospheric aerosol mass, and can influence CCN activity by depressing surface tension, contributing solute, and influencing droplet activation kinetics by forming a barrier to water uptake. We present direct evidence that two ubiquitous atmospheric trace gases, methylglyoxal (MG) and acetaldehyde, known to be surface-active, can enhance aerosol CCN activity upon uptake. This effect is demonstrated by exposing acidified ammonium sulfate particles to 250 parts per billion (ppb) or 8 ppb gas-phase MG and/or acetaldehyde in an aerosol reaction chamber for up to 5 h. For the more atmospherically relevant experiments, i.e., the 8-ppb organic precursor concentrations, significant enhancements in CCN activity, up to 7.5% reduction in critical dry diameter for activation, are observed over a timescale of hours, without any detectable limitation in activation kinetics. This reduction in critical diameter enhances the apparent particle hygroscopicity up to 26%, which for ambient aerosol would lead to cloud droplet number concentration increases of 8-10% on average. The observed enhancements exceed what would be expected based on Köhler theory and bulk properties. Therefore, the effect may be attributed to the adsorption of MG and acetaldehyde to the gas-aerosol interface, leading to surface tension depression of the aerosol. We conclude that gas-phase surfactants may enhance CCN activity in the atmosphere.

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