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J Am Chem Soc. 2014 Jun 4;136(22):8081-93. doi: 10.1021/ja503311r. Epub 2014 May 22.

Ice crystallization in ultrafine water-salt aerosols: nucleation, ice-solution equilibrium, and internal structure.

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Department of Chemistry, The University of Utah , 315 South 1400 East, Salt Lake City, Utah 84112-0850, United States.


Atmospheric aerosols have a strong influence on Earth's climate. Elucidating the physical state and internal structure of atmospheric aqueous aerosols is essential to predict their gas and water uptake, and the locus and rate of atmospherically important heterogeneous reactions. Ultrafine aerosols with sizes between 3 and 15 nm have been detected in large numbers in the troposphere and tropopause. Nanoscopic aerosols arising from bubble bursting of natural and artificial seawater have been identified in laboratory and field experiments. The internal structure and phase state of these aerosols, however, cannot yet be determined in experiments. Here we use molecular simulations to investigate the phase behavior and internal structure of liquid, vitrified, and crystallized water-salt ultrafine aerosols with radii from 2.5 to 9.5 nm and with up to 10% moles of ions. We find that both ice crystallization and vitrification of the nanodroplets lead to demixing of pure water from the solutions. Vitrification of aqueous nanodroplets yields nanodomains of pure low-density amorphous ice in coexistence with vitrified solute rich aqueous glass. The melting temperature of ice in the aerosols decreases monotonically with an increase of solute fraction and decrease of radius. The simulations reveal that nucleation of ice occurs homogeneously at the subsurface of the water-salt nanoparticles. Subsequent ice growth yields phase-segregated, internally mixed, aerosols with two phases in equilibrium: a concentrated water-salt amorphous mixture and a spherical cap-like ice nanophase. The surface of the crystallized aerosols is heterogeneous, with ice and solution exposed to the vapor. Free energy calculations indicate that as the concentration of salt in the particles, the advance of the crystallization, or the size of the particles increase, the stability of the spherical cap structure increases with respect to the alternative structure in which a core of ice is fully surrounded by solution. We predict that micrometer-sized particles and nanoparticles have the same equilibrium internal structure. The variation of liquid-vapor surface tension with solute concentration is a key factor in determining whether a solution-embedded ice core or vapor-exposed ice cap is the equilibrium structure of the aerosols. In agreement with experiments, we predict that the structure of mixed-phase HNO3-water particles, representative of polar stratospheric clouds, consists of an ice core surrounded by freeze-concentrated solution. The results of this work are important to determine the phase state and internal structure of sea spray ultrafine aerosols and other mixed-phase particles under atmospherically relevant conditions.


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