A cluster-of-functional-groups approach for studying organic enhanced atmospheric cluster formation

Pedersen, Astrid Nørskov; Knattrup, Yosef; Elm, Jonas

The role of organic compounds in atmospheric new particle formation is difficult to disentangle due to the myriad of potentially important oxygenated organic molecules (OOMs) present in the atmosphere. Using state-of-the-art quantum chemical methods, we here employ a novel approach, denoted the “cluster-of-functional-groups” approach, for studying the involvement of OOMs in atmospheric cluster formation. Instead of the usual “trial-and-error” approach of testing the ability of experimentally identified OOMs to form stable clusters with other nucleation precursors, we here study which, and how many, intermolecular interactions are required in a given OOM to form stable clusters. In this manner we can reverse engineer the elusive structure of OOM candidates that might be involved in organic enhanced atmospheric cluster formation.

We calculated the binding free energies of all combinations of donor and acceptor organic functional groups to investigate which functional groups most preferentially bind with each other and with other nucleation precursors such as sulfuric acid and bases (ammonia, methyl-, dimethyl- and trimethylamine). We find that multiple carboxyl groups lead to substantially more stable clusters compared to all other combinations of functional groups. Employing cluster dynamics simulations, we investigate how a hypothetically OOM composed of multiple carboxyl groups can stabilize sulfuric acid–base clusters and provide recommendations for potential atmospheric multi-carboxylic acid tracer compounds that should be explicitly studied in the future.

The presented “cluster-of-functional-groups” approach is generally applicable and can be employed in many other applications, such as ion-induced nucleation and potentially in elucidating the structural patterns in molecules that facilitate ice nucleation.

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Pedersen, Astrid Nørskov / Knattrup, Yosef / Elm, Jonas: A cluster-of-functional-groups approach for studying organic enhanced atmospheric cluster formation. 2024. Copernicus Publications.

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