Photophysical oxidation plays newly discovered role in atmospheric chemistry

Earth atmosphere

Source: © Linda L Baker/Getty Images

Process is likely to be a general mechanism in tropospheric chemistry, especially at low altitudes

A newly discovered pathway for formaldehyde oxidation could be an important general mechanism in tropospheric chemistry. In the new route, absorption of sunlight allows organic molecules to react with atmospheric oxygen in a reaction that had not previously been observed. According to the researchers behind the findings, many compounds in the atmosphere are likely to undergo this process, particularly at low altitudes.

‘We discovered a new way molecules in the atmosphere can react,’ says Scott Kable at the University of New South Wales in Australia. He explains that in this process – called photophysical oxidation (PPO) – a molecule absorbs sunlight and before it breaks into fragments, it reacts with atmospheric oxygen to produce free radicals. In the common photochemical oxidation (PCO) reaction, which has been known for several decades, the molecules are first split by sunlight and then the fragments react with oxygen. ‘Importantly, the free radical fragments formed in the first step of PCO can be measured separately in the atmosphere or a lab,’ points out Kable.