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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Aerosol Fragmentation Driven by Coupling of Acid–Base and Free-Radical Chemistry in the Heterogeneous Oxidation of Aqueous Citric Acid by OH Radicals


A key uncertainty in the heterogeneous oxidation of carboxylic acids by hydroxyl radicals (OH) in aqueous-phase aerosol is how the free-radical reaction pathways might be altered by acid-base chemistry. In particular, if acid-base reactions occur concurrently with acyloxy radical formation and unimolecular decomposition of alkoxy radicals, there is a possibility that differences in reaction pathways impact the partitioning of organic carbon between the gas and aqueous phases. To examine these questions, a kinetic model is developed for the OH-initiated oxidation of citric acid aerosol at high relative humidity. The reaction scheme, containing both free-radical and acid-base elementary reaction steps with physically validated rate coefficients, accurately predicts the experimentally observed molecular composition, particle size, and average elemental composition of the aerosol upon oxidation. The difference between the two reaction channels centers on the reactivity of carboxylic acid groups. Free-radical reactions mainly add functional groups to the carbon skeleton of neutral citric acid, because carboxylic acid moieties deactivate the unimolecular fragmentation of alkoxy radicals. In contrast, the conjugate carboxylate groups originating from acid-base equilibria activate both acyloxy radical formation and carbon-carbon bond scission of alkoxy radicals, leading to the formation of low molecular weight, highly oxidized products such as oxalic and mesoxalic acid. Subsequent hydration of carbonyl groups in the oxidized products increases the aerosol hygroscopicity and accelerates the substantial water uptake and volume growth that accompany oxidation. These results frame the oxidative lifecycle of atmospheric aerosol: it is governed by feedbacks between reactions that first increase the particle oxidation state, then eventually promote water uptake and acid-base chemistry. When coupled to free-radical reactions, acid-base channels lead to formation of low molecular weight gas-phase reaction products and decreasing particle size.

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