Articles | Volume 9, issue 4
Research article
11 Apr 2016
Research article |  | 11 Apr 2016

Organic and inorganic decomposition products from the thermal desorption of atmospheric particles

Brent J. Williams, Yaping Zhang, Xiaochen Zuo, Raul E. Martinez, Michael J. Walker, Nathan M. Kreisberg, Allen H. Goldstein, Kenneth S. Docherty, and Jose L. Jimenez

Abstract. Atmospheric aerosol composition is often analyzed using thermal desorption techniques to evaporate samples and deliver organic or inorganic molecules to various designs of detectors for identification and quantification. The organic aerosol (OA) fraction is composed of thousands of individual compounds, some with nitrogen- and sulfur-containing functionality and, often contains oligomeric material, much of which may be susceptible to decomposition upon heating. Here we analyze thermal decomposition products as measured by a thermal desorption aerosol gas chromatograph (TAG) capable of separating thermal decomposition products from thermally stable molecules. The TAG impacts particles onto a collection and thermal desorption (CTD) cell, and upon completion of sample collection, heats and transfers the sample in a helium flow up to 310 °C. Desorbed molecules are refocused at the head of a gas chromatography column that is held at 45 °C and any volatile decomposition products pass directly through the column and into an electron impact quadrupole mass spectrometer. Analysis of the sample introduction (thermal decomposition) period reveals contributions of NO+ (m/z 30), NO2+ (m/z 46), SO+ (m/z 48), and SO2+ (m/z 64), derived from either inorganic or organic particle-phase nitrate and sulfate. CO2+ (m/z 44) makes up a major component of the decomposition signal, along with smaller contributions from other organic components that vary with the type of aerosol contributing to the signal (e.g., m/z 53, 82 observed here for isoprene-derived secondary OA). All of these ions are important for ambient aerosol analyzed with the aerosol mass spectrometer (AMS), suggesting similarity of the thermal desorption processes in both instruments. Ambient observations of these decomposition products compared to organic, nitrate, and sulfate mass concentrations measured by an AMS reveal good correlation, with improved correlations for OA when compared to the AMS oxygenated OA (OOA) component. TAG signal found in the traditional compound elution time period reveals higher correlations with AMS hydrocarbon-like OA (HOA) combined with the fraction of OOA that is less oxygenated. Potential to quantify nitrate and sulfate aerosol mass concentrations using the TAG system is explored through analysis of ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate standards. While chemical standards display a linear response in the TAG system, redesorptions of the CTD cell following ambient sample analysis show some signal carryover on sulfate and organics, and new desorption methods should be developed to improve throughput. Future standards should be composed of complex organic/inorganic mixtures, similar to what is found in the atmosphere, and perhaps will more accurately account for any aerosol mixture effects on compositional quantification.

Short summary
The thermal desorption aerosol gas chromatograph (TAG) has been used for in situ measurements of organic marker compounds to identify atmospheric particle sources and transformation processes. Here we identify that inorganic aerosol components (e.g., nitrate and sulfate) and highly oxygenated organic components experience thermal decomposition upon sample heating. This thermal decomposition signal in the TAG system is investigated through laboratory and field data.