From molecular clusters to nanoparticles: Role of ambient ionization in tropospheric aerosol formation


Fangqun Yu1 and Richard P. Turco


Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles, California

1 Now at Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, State University of New York at Albany


(J. Geophy. Res., 106, 4797-4814, 2001)



Abstract. We investigate the role of background ionization, associated mainly with galactic cosmic radiation, in the generation and evolution of ultrafine particles in the marine boundary layer. We follow the entire course of aerosol evolution, from the initial buildup of molecular clusters (charged and uncharged) through their growth into stable nanoparticles. The model used for this purpose is based on a unified collisional (kinetic) mechanism that treats the interactions between vapors, neutral and charged clusters, and particles at all sizes. We show that air ions are likely to play a central role in the formation of new ultrafine particles. The nucleation of aerosols under atmospheric conditions involves a series of competing processes, including molecular aggregation, evaporation, and scavenging by preexisting particles. In this highly sensitive nonlinear system, electrically charged embryos have a competitive advantage over similar neutral embryos. The charged clusters experience enhanced growth and stability as a consequence of electrostatic interactions. Simulations of a major nucleation event observed during the Pacific Exploratory Mission (PEM) Tropics-A can explain most of the observed features in the ultrafine particle behavior. The key parameters controlling this behavior are the concentrations of precursor vapors and the surface area of preexisting particles, as well as the background ionization rate. We find that systematic variations in ionization levels due to the modulation of galactic cosmic radiation by the solar cycle are sufficient to cause a notable variation in aerosol production. This effect is greatest when the ambient nucleation rate is limited principally by the availability of ions. Hence we conclude that the greatest influence of such ionization is likely to occur in and above the marine boundary layer.  While a systematic change in the ultrafine particle production rate is likely to affect the population of cloud condensation nuclei and hence cloud optical properties, the magnitude of the effect cannot be directly inferred from the present analysis, and requires additional analysis based on specific aerosol-cloud interactions.