(ORDO NEWS) — Every breath of air we breathe is made up primarily of nitrogen, a generous helping of oxygen, and a small amount of carbon dioxide.
But this atmospheric soup contains a whole encyclopedia of various compounds and elements, some of which we can only guess at.
However, one of these mysteries has just cleared up. Chemists have shown that there is a reactive class of compounds in the atmosphere called organic hydrotrioxides, and while these chemicals are short-lived, they can have effects that we don’t yet know about.
In fact, according to the researchers’ calculations, you just sucked in several billion of their molecules while reading this article.
What exactly this means for your health, not to mention the health of our planet, is up in the air, literally and figuratively. But given that we’ve just discovered this new ingredient in Earth’s atmosphere, it’s worth exploring.
“These compounds have always existed – we just didn’t know about them,” says chemist Henrik Grum Kjærgaard of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.
“But the fact that we now have evidence that these compounds are formed and live for a certain time means that it is possible to study their action … and react if they turn out to be dangerous.”
Quite often in chemistry, the addition of just one new component can radically change the behavior of a material.
Let’s take water for example. Through the interaction of a pair of hydrogens and a single oxygen, organic chemistry can mix and twist into an evolving phenomenon that we call life.
But add one more oxygen and we have hydrogen peroxide, a much more reactive compound capable of tearing living chemistry apart.
Add another oxygen to that angry little molecule and you have hydrotrioxide. To obtain it, you only need laboratory equipment, saturated organic compounds and dry ice.
It’s not exactly the kind of party trick you can spice up margaritas with, but chemists have used their production to produce the specific flavor of molecular oxygen as a step in the production of various other substances.
Being highly reactive, the question of whether hydrotrioxides can easily form stable structures in the atmosphere remains open.
This is not just academic speculation. So much of how our atmosphere works, from the complex ways it affects human health to the massive effects on the global climate, depends on how the trace substances in it interact.
“Most of human activity results in the release of chemicals into the atmosphere. Therefore, knowing the reactions that determine atmospheric chemistry is important so that we can predict how our actions will affect the atmosphere in the future,” says Kristan H. Möller, also a chemist from University of Copenhagen.
The team’s research has yielded the first direct observations of the formation of hydrotrioxide under atmospheric conditions from several substances known to be present in our air.
This allowed them to study how this compound can be synthesized, how long it lasts, and how it degrades.
One such release, called isoprene, can react in the atmosphere, producing about 10 million metric tons of hydrotrioxide each year.
However, this is only one potential source. Based on the team’s calculations, virtually any compound could theoretically play a role in the atmospheric formation of hydrotrioxides, which persist for minutes to hours.
During this time, they can participate in a variety of other reactions as a powerful oxidizing agent, some of which may be hidden inside microscopic particulate matter drifting in the winds.
“It’s easy to imagine that new substances are formed in aerosols that are harmful when inhaled. But further research is needed to explore these potential health effects,” Kjærgaard says.
Because aerosols also affect how our planet reflects sunlight, knowing how their internal chemistry makes them grow or break apart could change how our climate is modeled.
Further research will undoubtedly begin to reveal the role of hydrotrioxides in our planet’s atmospheric cocktail. As University of Copenhagen researcher Jing Chen points out, this is really only the beginning.
“Indeed, the air around us is a huge tangle of complex chemical reactions,” says Chen.
“As researchers, we need to keep an open mind if we want to be better at finding solutions.”
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