skip to main content


The NSF Public Access Repository (NSF-PAR) system and access will be unavailable from 11:00 PM ET on Thursday, May 23 until 2:00 AM ET on Friday, May 24 due to maintenance. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Title: Direct measurement of the pH of aerosol particles using carbon quantum dots
The pH of aerosol particles remains challenging to measure because of their small size, complex composition, and high acidity. Acidity in aqueous aerosol particles, which are found abundantly in the atmosphere, impacts many chemical processes from reaction rates to cloud formation. Only one technique – pH paper – currently exists for directly determining the pH of aerosol particles, and this is restricted to measuring average acidity for entire particle populations. Other methods for evaluating aerosol pH include filter samples, particle-into-liquid sampling, Raman spectroscopy, organic dyes, and thermodynamic models, but these either operate in a higher pH range or are unable to assess certain chemical species or complexity. Here, we present a new method for determining acidity of individual particles and particle phases using carbon quantum dots as a novel in situ fluorophore. Carbon quantum dots are easily synthesized, shelf stable, and sensitive to pH in the highly acidic regime from pH 0 to pH 3 relevant to ambient aerosol particles. To establish the method, a calibration curve was formed from the ratiometric fluorescence intensity of aerosolized standard solutions with a correlation coefficient ( R 2 ) of 0.99. Additionally, the pH of aerosol particles containing a complex organic mixture (COM) representative of environmental aerosols was also determined, proving the efficacy of using carbon quantum dots as pH-sensitive fluorophores for complex systems. The ability to directly measure aerosol particle and phase acidity in the correct pH range can help parametrize atmospheric models and improve projections for other aerosol properties and their influence on health and climate.  more » « less
Award ID(s):
1916758 1351383 1904803
Author(s) / Creator(s):
; ;
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Analytical Methods
Page Range / eLocation ID:
2929 to 2936
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract. Acidity, defined as pH, is a central component of aqueouschemistry. In the atmosphere, the acidity of condensed phases (aerosolparticles, cloud water, and fog droplets) governs the phase partitioning ofsemivolatile gases such as HNO3, NH3, HCl, and organic acids andbases as well as chemical reaction rates. It has implications for theatmospheric lifetime of pollutants, deposition, and human health. Despiteits fundamental role in atmospheric processes, only recently has this fieldseen a growth in the number of studies on particle acidity. Even with thisgrowth, many fine-particle pH estimates must be based on thermodynamic modelcalculations since no operational techniques exist for direct measurements.Current information indicates acidic fine particles are ubiquitous, butobservationally constrained pH estimates are limited in spatial and temporalcoverage. Clouds and fogs are also generally acidic, but to a lesser degreethan particles, and have a range of pH that is quite sensitive toanthropogenic emissions of sulfur and nitrogen oxides, as well as ambientammonia. Historical measurements indicate that cloud and fog droplet pH haschanged in recent decades in response to controls on anthropogenicemissions, while the limited trend data for aerosol particles indicateacidity may be relatively constant due to the semivolatile nature of thekey acids and bases and buffering in particles. This paper reviews andsynthesizes the current state of knowledge on the acidity of atmosphericcondensed phases, specifically particles and cloud droplets. It includesrecommendations for estimating acidity and pH, standard nomenclature, asynthesis of current pH estimates based on observations, and new modelcalculations on the local and global scale. 
    more » « less
  2. Abstract. pH is an important property of aerosol particles but is difficult to measure directly. Several studies have estimated the pH values for fine particles in northern China winter haze using thermodynamic models (i.e., E-AIM and ISORROPIA) and ambient measurements. The reported pH values differ widely, ranging from close to 0 (highly acidic) to as high as 7 (neutral). In order to understand the reason for this discrepancy, we calculated pH values using these models with different assumptions with regard to model inputs and particle phase states. We find that the large discrepancy is due primarily to differences in the model assumptions adopted in previous studies. Calculations using only aerosol-phase composition as inputs (i.e., reverse mode) are sensitive to the measurement errors of ionic species, and inferred pH values exhibit a bimodal distribution, with peaks between −2 and 2 and between 7 and 10, depending on whether anions or cations are in excess. Calculations using total (gas plus aerosol phase) measurements as inputs (i.e., forward mode) are affected much less by these measurement errors. In future studies, the reverse mode should be avoided whereas the forward mode should be used. Forward-mode calculations in this and previous studies collectively indicate a moderately acidic condition (pH from about 4 to about 5) for fine particles in northern China winter haze, indicating further that ammonia plays an important role in determining this property. The assumed particle phase state, either stable (solid plus liquid) or metastable (only liquid), does not significantly impact pH predictions. The unrealistic pH values of about 7 in a few previous studies (using the standard ISORROPIA model and stable state assumption) resulted from coding errors in the model, which have been identified and fixed in this study.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract Secondary organic aerosol (SOA) is key to our climate, affecting Earth’s radiative balance both indirectly and directly. Understanding the chemical composition and properties of SOA are crucial to accurately predict their concentrations and ultimately their impact on climate in models. Multiphase chemical reactions in the atmosphere have been found to form a variety of low-volatility, high-molecular-weight species, or oligomers. Although oligomers may constitute a large portion of SOA, they are not well understood. Most analytical techniques are unable to detect such high-mass organic species, so their formation and degradation mechanisms are still in need of investigation. Herein, we present a method using matrix-assisted laser desorption ionization mass spectrometry (MALDI-MS) to determine the oligomeric content of aerosol particles. We apply the method to analyze SOA particles formed from reactive uptake of IEPOX onto acidic ammonium sulfate seed particles during atmospheric chamber experiments. We compare the oligomeric content of the particles based on key properties, including particle acidity and exposure to oxidants. We compared multiple sample collection methods, including impaction into deionized water using a Liquid Spot Sampler (Aerosol Devices) and direct impaction onto a sampling plate. Our work will provide insight about the formation of 
    more » « less
  4. The ability of an atmospheric aerosol particle to take up water or to participate in heterogeneous reactions is highly influenced by its phase state – solid, semi-solid, or liquid. The changes in phase state can be predicted by glass transition temperature (Tg), as particles at temperatures below their Tg will show solid properties, while increasing the temperature above their Tg will allow for semi-solid and eventually liquid properties. Historically, measurements of the Tg of bulk materials have been studied in order to model the phase states of aerosols in the atmosphere; however, these methods only permit an estimation of aerosol Tg based on their bulk chemical composition. Determining the Tg of individual particles will allow for more accurate model predictions of aerosol phase state. Herein, we apply a recently developed method utilizing a nano-thermal analysis (nanoTA) module coupled to an atomic force microscope (AFM), to determine the Tg of individual secondary organic aerosol (SOA) particles generated from the reactive uptake of isoprene-derived epoxydiols (IEPOX) onto acidic ammonium sulfate aerosol particles. NanoTA works by using a specialized AFM probe which can be heated while in contact with a particle of interest. As the temperature increases, the probe deflection will first increase due to thermal expansion of the particle followed by a decrease at its melting temperature (Tm). The Tg of the particle can then be determined from Tm using the Boyer–Beaman rule. We compare the Tg of the SOA particles formed from IEPOX uptake onto ammonium sulfate particles with different initial aerosol pH values, as well as under a range of oxidant exposure conditions. Our measurements will allow for more accurate representations of the phase state of aerosols under a range of atmospheric conditions. 
    more » « less
  5. Abstract We recently demonstrated that the heterogeneous hydroxyl radical (·OH) oxidation is an important aging process for isoprene epoxydiol-derived secondary organic aerosol (IEPOX-SOA) that alters its chemical composition, and thus, aerosol physicochemical properties. Notably, dimeric species in IEPOX-SOA were found to heterogeneously react with ·OH at a much faster rate than monomers, suggesting that the initial oligomeric content of freshly-generated IEPOX-SOA particles may affect its subsequent atmospheric oxidation. Aerosol acidity could in principle influence this aging process by enhancing the formation of sulfated and non-sulfated oligomers in freshly-generated IEPOX-SOA. Many multifunctional organosulfate (OS) products derived from heterogeneous ·OH oxidation of sulfur-containing IEPOX-SOA have been observed in cloud water residues and ice nucleating particles and could affect the ability of aged IEPOX-SOA particles to act as cloud condensation nuclei. Hence, this study systematically investigated the effect of aerosol acidity on the kinetics and products resulting from heterogeneous ·OH oxidation of IEPOX-SOA particles. Gas-phase IEPOX was reacted with inorganic sulfate particles of varying pH (0.5 to 2.0) in an indoor smog chamber operated under dark, steady-state conditions to form freshly-generated IEPOX-SOA particles. These particles were then aged at a relative humidity of 60% in an oxidation flow reactor (OFR) for 0-15 days of equivalent atmospheric ·OH exposure. Aged IEPOX-SOA particles were sampled by an online aerosol chemical speciation monitor (ACSM) to measure real-time aerosol mass and chemical changes of the SOA particles, and were also collected onto Teflon filters and into PILS vials for molecular-level chemical analyses by hydrophilic liquid interaction chromatography method interfaced to electrospray ionization high-resolution quadrupole time-of-flight mass spectrometry (HILIC/ESI-HR-QTOFMS), ion chromatography, and total OS mass amounts. 
    more » « less