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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Combustion's impact on the global atmosphere


The combustion of a hydrocarbon fuel removes molecular oxygen (O2) from the atmosphere and releasesequivalent amounts of water (H2O) and carbon dioxide (CO2), almost always with trace amounts of numerous other compounds including hydrocarbons (CH4, C2H2, C2H4, C2H6, C3H8, C6H6, CH3CHO, etc.), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen oxides (NO, N2O) and reduced nitrogen (NH3 and HCN), sulfur gases (SO2, OCS, CS2) halocarbons (CH3Cl and CH3Br), and particles. A review of the atmospheric budgets of these gases shows that burning of fossil fuels and recent biomass has led to global alterations in the composition of our atmosphere. Combustion is clearly responsible for most of the enhanced greenhouse forcing to data (through CO2, tropospheric O3, soot) and also some counteracting effects (through SO2). it has had minimal impact on stratospheric O3 (through CH3Cl, CH3Br, CH4), but has likely changed the tropospheric oxidant levels (through CO, NOx, NMHC), at least over the northern hemisphere. Most of the important greenhouse gases and tropospheric oxidant gases have significant natural sources, which are not well defined today and may be changing; and thus, quantifying the role of combustion is difficult.

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