Unraveling the role of silicon in atmospheric aerosol secondary formation: a new conservative tracer for aerosol chemistry
Aerosol particles are ubiquitous in the atmosphere and affect the quality of human life through their climatic and health effects. The formation and growth of aerosol particles involve extremely complex reactions and processes. Due to limited research tools, the sources and chemistry of aerosols are still not fully understood, and until now have normally been investigated by using chemical species of secondary aerosols (e.g., NH4+, NO3-, SO42-, SOC) as tracers. Here we investigated the role of silicon (Si), an ubiquitous but relatively inert element, during the secondary aerosol formation process. We analyzed the correlation of Si in airborne fine particles (PM2.5) collected in Beijing – a typical pollution region – with the secondary chemical species and secondary particle precursors (e.g., SO2 and NOx). The total mass of Si in PM2.5 was found to be uncorrelated with the secondary aerosol formation process, which suggested that Si is a new conservative tracer for the amount of primary materials in PM2.5 and can be used to estimate the relative amount of secondary and primary compounds in PM2.5. This finding enables the accurate estimation of secondary aerosol contribution to PM2.5 by using Si as a single tracer rather than the commonly used multiple chemical tracers. In addition, we show that the correlation analysis of secondary aerosols with the Si isotopic composition of PM2.5 can further reveal the sources of the precursors of secondary aerosols. Therefore, Si may provide a new tool for aerosol chemistry studies.