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How the detergent of the atmosphere is regenerated

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Posted October 7, 2013

It sounds unlikely: a washing machine recycles used detergent in order to use it again for the next load of dirty washing. But this is just what happens during the degradation of pollutants in the atmosphere. German scientists have now been able to demonstrate this for the first time for isoprene, the most important natural hydrocarbon. The new findings have now been published in the scientific journal Nature Geoscience.

How the detergent of the atmosphere is regenerated
The large atmosphere simulation chamber SAPHIR provides a platform for reproducible studies of well-defined atmospheric-chemical mechanisms. Credit: Forschungszentrum Jülich
Hydroxyl (OH) radicals – known as the detergent of the atmosphere – decompose isoprene in the air. This leads to the creation of new OH radicals, which are then able to purify the air of other pollutants and trace gases. The scientific community had previously only been able to speculate about this mechanism.

The atmosphere has an astonishing ability to cleanse itself. Chemical processes ensure that trace gases and pollutants are removed from the atmosphere – such as isoprene, which is largely produced by forests. Without these processes global warming would be even more severe and , air quality much poorer. Just a few years ago, scientists thought that the degradation of isoprene considerably reduced the concentration of OH radicals. During studies in China, troposphere researchers from Jülich’s Institute of Energy and Climate Research simultaneously determined high concentrations of both OH radicals and trace gases such as isoprene. Other research groups made similar observations in the air above North American forests and tropical rainforests. The obvious conclusion was that during isoprene degradation something happens to regenerate the OH radicals. “In the past few years, there has been an intensive discussion in the scientific community about what this mechanism could be. But without actual proof this remained pure speculation. Now we have succeeded in demonstrating this process,” says the Jülich troposphere researcher, Dr. Hendrik Fuchs.

 

Read more at: Phys.org

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