Technical Note: The single particle soot photometer fails to reliably detect PALAS soot nanoparticles
Abstract. The single particle soot photometer (SP2) uses laser-induced incandescence (LII) for the measurement of atmospheric black carbon (BC) particles. The BC mass concentration is obtained by combining quantitative detection of BC mass in single particles with a counting efficiency of 100% above its lower detection limit. It is commonly accepted that a particle must contain at least several tenths of a femtogram BC in order to be detected by the SP2.
Here we show the result that most BC particles from a PALAS spark discharge soot generator remain undetected by the SP2, even if their BC mass, as independently determined with an aerosol particle mass analyser (APM), is clearly above the typical lower detection limit of the SP2. Comparison of counting efficiency and effective density data of PALAS soot with flame generated soot (combustion aerosol standard burner, CAST), fullerene soot and carbon black particles (Cabot Regal 400R) reveals that particle morphology can affect the SP2's lower detection limit. PALAS soot particles are fractal-like agglomerates of very small primary particles with a low fractal dimension, resulting in a very low effective density. Such loosely packed particles behave like "the sum of individual primary particles" in the SP2's laser. Accordingly, most PALAS soot particles remain undetected as the SP2's laser intensity is insufficient to heat the primary particles to their vaporisation temperature because of their small size (Dpp ≈ 5–10 nm). Previous knowledge from pulsed laser-induced incandescence indicated that particle morphology might have an effect on the SP2's lower detection limit, however, an increase of the lower detection limit by a factor of ∼5–10, as reported here for PALAS soot, was not expected.
In conclusion, the SP2's lower detection limit at a certain laser power depends primarily on the total BC mass per particle for compact particles with sufficiently high effective density. By contrast, the BC mass per primary particle mainly determines whether fractal-like particles with low fractal dimension and very small primary particles are detectable, while their total BC mass has only a minor influence. This effect shifts the lower detection limit to much higher BC mass, or makes them completely undetectable. Consequently, care has to be taken when using the SP2 in applications dealing with loosely packed particles that have very small primary particles as building blocks.