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Revealing the molecular structure of soot precursors


The earliest stages of soot formation in flames are believed to involve the formation of small, nanoscale clusters of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon molecules. The structure of these clusters is still highly uncertain, however, impeding the construction of quantitative models of soot inception and growth. To provide insight into the structure of incipient soot, we produced nanoclusters of hydrocarbon molecules by annealing coronene films deposited on Pt(111), and examined them with scanning tunneling microcopy. We find that clusters containing ∼20–100 molecules, are disordered agglomerations of stacks that are ∼5–6 molecules tall. These structures are quite distinct from crystalline coronene, but bear a striking resemblance to recently proposed models for the equilibrium structure of similarly-sized clusters that are assumed to initiate soot formation. In contrast to mature soot, the surfaces of these clusters contain very few molecules with graphitic planes oriented parallel to the surface.

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