Articles | Volume 10, issue 12
Research article
22 Dec 2017
Research article |  | 22 Dec 2017

An aircraft gas chromatograph–mass spectrometer System for Organic Fast Identification Analysis (SOFIA): design, performance and a case study of Asian monsoon pollution outflow

Efstratios Bourtsoukidis, Frank Helleis, Laura Tomsche, Horst Fischer, Rolf Hofmann, Jos Lelieveld, and Jonathan Williams

Abstract. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are important for global air quality and oxidation processes in the troposphere. In addition to ground-based measurements, the chemical evolution of such species during transport can be studied by performing in situ airborne measurements. Generally, aircraft instrumentation needs to be sensitive, robust and sample at higher frequency than ground-based systems while their construction must comply with rigorous mechanical and electrical safety standards. Here, we present a new System for Organic Fast Identification Analysis (SOFIA), which is a custom-built fast gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) system with a time resolution of 2–3 min and the ability to quantify atmospheric mixing ratios of halocarbons (e.g. chloromethanes), hydrocarbons (e.g isoprene), oxygenated VOCs (acetone, propanal, butanone) and aromatics (e.g. benzene, toluene) from sub-ppt to ppb levels. The relatively high time resolution is the result of a novel cryogenic pre-concentration unit which rapidly cools (∼ 6 °C s−1) the sample enrichment traps to −140 °C, and a new chromatographic oven designed for rapid cooling rates (∼ 30 °C s−1) and subsequent thermal stabilization. SOFIA was installed in the High Altitude and Long Range Research Aircraft (HALO) for the Oxidation Mechanism Observations (OMO) campaign in August 2015, aimed at investigating the Asian monsoon pollution outflow in the tropical upper troposphere. In addition to a comprehensive instrument characterization we present an example monsoon plume crossing flight as a case study to demonstrate the instrument capability. Hydrocarbon, halocarbon and oxygenated VOC data from SOFIA are compared with mixing ratios of carbon monoxide (CO) and methane (CH4), used to define the pollution plume. By using excess (ExMR) and normalized excess mixing ratios (NEMRs) the pollution could be attributed to two air masses of distinctly different origin, identified by back-trajectory analysis. This work endorses the use of SOFIA for aircraft operation and demonstrates the value of relatively high-frequency, multicomponent measurements in atmospheric chemistry research.