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Volume 2, Pages 1138-1146
Short Communication

Ionic Surface Active Compounds in Atmospheric Aerosols

School of Environmental Sciences, University of East Anglia, Norwich NR4 7TJ, UK

Received 19 November 2001; Revised 23 February 2002; Accepted 28 February 2002

Copyright © 2002 Jariya Sukhapan and Peter Brimblecombe.


Surfactants in the atmosphere have several potential roles in atmospheric chemistry. They can form films on aqueous surfaces, which lowers the surface tension and possibly delays water evaporation and gaseous transportation across the aqueous interface. They can also increase the solubility of organic compounds in the aqueous phase. Recently, the decrease of surface tension in cloud growing droplets has been suggested as relevant to increases in the number of droplets of smaller size, potentially enhancing cloud albedo. Natural surfactants in the lung aid gas transfer and influence the dissolution rate of aerosol particles, so surfactants in atmospheric aerosols, once inhaled, may interact with pulmonary surfactants. Ambient aerosols were collected from the edge of Norwich, a small city in a largely agricultural region of England, and analysed for surfactants. Methylene blue, a conventional dye for detecting anionic surfactants, has been used as a colorimetric agent. The concentration of surfactants expressed as methylene blue active substances (MBAS) is in the range of 6–170 pmol m-3(air). A negative correlation with chloride aerosol indicates that these surfactants are probably not the well-known surfactants derived from marine spray. A more positive correlation with aerosol nitrate and gaseous NOx supports an association with more polluted inland air masses. The surfactants found in aerosols seem to be relatively strong acids, compared with weaker acids such as the long-chain carboxylic acids previously proposed as atmospheric surfactants. Surfactants from the oxidation of organic materials (perhaps vegetation- or soil-derived) seem a likely source of these substances in the atmosphere.