Articles | Volume 15, issue 6
Research article
28 Mar 2015
Research article |  | 28 Mar 2015

Total sulfate vs. sulfuric acid monomer concenterations in nucleation studies

K. Neitola, D. Brus, U. Makkonen, M. Sipilä, R. L. Mauldin III, N. Sarnela, T. Jokinen, H. Lihavainen, and M. Kulmala

Abstract. Sulfuric acid is known to be a key component for atmospheric nucleation. Precise determination of sulfuric-acid concentration is a crucial factor for prediction of nucleation rates and subsequent growth. In our study, we have noticed a substantial discrepancy between sulfuric-acid monomer concentrations and total-sulfate concentrations measured from the same source of sulfuric-acid vapor. The discrepancy of about 1–2 orders of magnitude was found with similar particle-formation rates. To investigate this discrepancy, and its effect on nucleation, a method of thermally controlled saturator filled with pure sulfuric acid (97% wt.) for production of sulfuric-acid vapor is applied and rigorously tested. The saturator provided an independent vapor-production method, compared to our previous method of the furnace (Brus et al., 2010, 2011), to find out if the discrepancy is caused by the production method itself. The saturator was used in a H2SO4–H2O nucleation experiment, using a laminar flow tube to check reproducibility of the nucleation results with the saturator method, compared to the furnace. Two independent methods of mass spectrometry and online ion chromatography were used for detecting sulfuric-acid or sulfate concentrations. Measured sulfuric-acid or total-sulfate concentrations are compared to theoretical predictions calculated using vapor pressure and a mixing law. The calculated prediction of sulfuric-acid concentrations agrees very well with the measured values when total sulfate is considered. Sulfuric-acid monomer concentration was found to be about 2 orders of magnitude lower than theoretical predictions, but with a temperature dependency similar to the predictions and the results obtained with the ion-chromatograph method. Formation rates are reproducible when compared to our previous results with both sulfuric-acid or total-sulfate detection and sulfuric-acid production methods separately, removing any doubts that the vapor-production method would cause the discrepancy. Possible reasons for the discrepancy are discussed and some suggestions include that the missing sulfuric acid is in clusters, formed with contaminants found in most laboratory experiments. One-to-two-order-of-magnitude higher sulfuric-acid concentrations (measured as total sulfate in this study) would contribute to a higher fraction of particle growth rate than assumed from the measurements by mass spectrometers (i.e. sulfuric-acid monomer). However, the observed growth rates by sulfate-containing vapor in this study does not directly imply a similar situation in the field, where sources of sulfate are much more diverse.

Short summary
A discrepancy of 2 orders of magnitude was found between the measured sulfuric acid monomer concentration and total sulfate, when measured with independent methods (mass spectrometry and ion chromatography) with the same source of sulphuric acid vapor. The ion chromatography method produces the exact concentrations predicted by empirical equations, and the mass spectrometry method shows significantly lower values. The discrepancy is investigated thoroughly from different points of views.
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