Articles | Volume 11, issue 18
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 11, 9451–9463, 2011
Atmos. Chem. Phys., 11, 9451–9463, 2011

Research article 16 Sep 2011

Research article | 16 Sep 2011

The size-dependent charge fraction of sub-3-nm particles as a key diagnostic of competitive nucleation mechanisms under atmospheric conditions

F. Yu1 and R. P. Turco2 F. Yu and R. P. Turco
  • 1Atmospheric Sciences Research Center, State University of New York at Albany, 251 Fuller Road, Albany, New York 12203, USA
  • 2Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, University of California at Los Angeles, 405 Hilgard Ave, Los Angeles, California 90095, USA

Abstract. A clear physical understanding of atmospheric particle nucleation mechanisms is critical in assessing the influences of aerosols on climate and climate variability. Currently, several mechanisms have been proposed and are being employed to interpret field observations of nucleation events. Roughly speaking, the two most likely candidates are neutral cluster nucleation (NCN) and ion-mediated nucleation (IMN). Detailed nucleation event data has been obtained in boreal forests. In one set of analyses of these measurements, NCN was suggested as the dominant formation mode, while in another, it was IMN. Information on the electrical charge distribution carried by the nucleating clusters is one key for identifying the relative contributions of neutral and ion-mediated processes under various conditions. Fortunately, ground-breaking measurements of the charged states or fractions of ambient nanometer-sized particles soon after undergoing nucleation are now available to help resolve the main pathways. In the present study, the size-dependent "apparent" formation rates and fractions of charged and neutral particles in a boreal forest setting are simulated with a detailed kinetic model. We show that the predicted "apparent" formation rates of charged and neutral particles at 2 nm for eight representative case study days agree well with the corresponding values based on observations. In the simulations, the "apparent" contribution of ion-based nucleation increases by up to ~one order of magnitude as the size of "sampled" particles is decreased from 2 nm to ~1.5 nm. These results suggest that most of the neutral particles sampled in the field at sizes around 2 nm are in reality initially formed on ionic cores that are neutralized before the particles grow to this size. Thus, although the apparent rate of formation of neutral 2-nm particles might seem to be dominated by a neutral clustering process, in fact those particles may be largely the result of an ion-induced nucleation mechanism. This point is clarified when the formation rates of smaller particles (e.g., ~1.5 nm) are explicitly analyzed (noting that measurements at these smaller sizes are not yet available), indicating that IMN dominates NCN processes under typical circumstances in the boreal forest cases investigated.

Final-revised paper