University of Alaska Fairbanks researchers study new compound found in wintertime air

Researchers at UAF have been exploring a new chemical compound in Fairbanks' air, but they have...
Researchers at UAF have been exploring a new chemical compound in Fairbanks' air, but they have not yet discovered how it is formed.(UAF Geophysical Institute)
Published: Apr. 7, 2021 at 4:15 PM AKDT
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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) - Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) have been researching a new chemical compound found in the Fairbanks wintertime air.

The compound is hydroxymethanesulfonate and no one is quite sure how it is formed in the air at this time, but the compound is part of the PM2.5 fine particulate matter that often plagues Fairbanks in winter.

According to Jingqiu Mao, Assistant Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry with the UAF Geophysical Institute, the research began two years ago as the university was preparing for the Alaskan Layered Pollution And Chemical Analysis (ALPACA) project.

Mao explained, “We were getting prepared for this ALPACA, a big project to study Fairbanks air quality. We try to understand air quality in these dark and cold conditions, you know, like high latitude. So we collected a few aerosol samples and analyzed them. In general in the lower-48 you will find six peaks for sulfate, the general compounds. But with this case we found that additional peak and started to look into that, and turns out this is a new compound - we realize that it’s rather new. It’s probably the first time finding it in North America, we call that hydroxymethanesulfonate.”

The curious aspect of the new compound is the unknown conditions required for its creation.

“We know generally how the chemistry is taking place. For example, we know the precursors for this compound to be formed. One is sulfur dioxide and one is formaldehyde. They all can be immediate from viral sources. But that’s not the whole equation, you still need some conditions to make that happen. So we were trying to understand what is the optimal condition to have this compound form. For example is that due to the cold temperature we have? Or is that due to the immersion layer? Or due to the wood smoke? What exactly is the driver for that? We just do not understand yet. That’s why we’re so excited! We want to put all of the resources together to have a better understanding of that. Then we can come up with strategies to control that,” remarked Mao.

Research into hydroxymethanesulfonate has the potential to help better understand not only Fairbanks’ air, but other similar cold climate urban areas.

“What we’re learning here will not only benefit Fairbanks, it will likely benefit other urban areas at high latitudes because many other urban areas during the winter time also suffer from pretty bad air quality. I know for instance, Mongolia - they have been suffering from pretty bad air quality. So what we are learning here can benefit many other places as well. It’s not just limited to Fairbanks. This is just one compound, but from studying this compound we really can learn a lot of information about what’s happening in those small particles,” said Mao.

More information on the new compound can be found at the UAF Geophysical Institute website.

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