Molecular characterization of brown carbon (BrC) chromophores in secondary organic aerosol generated from photo-oxidation of toluene†
Atmospheric brown carbon (BrC) is a significant contributor to light absorption and climate forcing. However, little is known about a fundamental relationship between the chemical composition of BrC and its optical properties. In this work, light-absorbing secondary organic aerosol (SOA) was generated in the PNNL chamber from toluene photo-oxidation in the presence of NOx (Tol-SOA). Molecular structures of BrC components were examined using nanospray desorption electrospray ionization (nano-DESI) and liquid chromatography (LC) combined with UV/Vis spectroscopy and electrospray ionization (ESI) high-resolution mass spectrometry (HRMS). The chemical composition of BrC chromophores and the light absorption properties of toluene SOA (Tol-SOA) depend strongly on the initial NOx concentration. Specifically, Tol-SOA generated under high-NOx conditions (defined here as initial NOx/toluene of 5/1) appears yellow and mass absorption coefficient of the bulk sample (MACbulk@365 nm = 0.78 m2 g−1) is nearly 80 fold higher than that measured for the Tol-SOA sample generated under low-NOx conditions (NOx/toluene < 1/300). Fifteen compounds, most of which are nitrophenols, are identified as major BrC chromophores responsible for the enhanced light absorption of Tol-SOA material produced in the presence of NOx. The integrated absorbance of these fifteen chromophores accounts for 40–60% of the total light absorbance by Tol-SOA at wavelengths between 300 nm and 500 nm. The combination of tandem LC-UV/Vis-ESI/HRMS measurements provides an analytical platform for predictive understanding of light absorption properties by BrC and their relationship to the structure of individual chromophores. General trends in the UV/Vis absorption by plausible isomers of the BrC chromophores were evaluated using theoretical chemistry calculations. The molecular-level understanding of BrC chemistry is helpful for better understanding the evolution and behavior of light absorbing aerosols in the atmosphere.