An entirely new kind of highly reactive chemicals has been found in the atmosphere

Every lungful of air we suck down is made up of mostly nitrogen, with a generous helping of oxygen and a dash of carbon dioxide.

But the dusting of this atmospheric soup is a whole encyclopedia of various compounds and elements, some of which we can only speculate about.

However, one of those mysteries just came into focus. Chemists have shown that there is a reactive class of compounds called organic hydrotrioxides in the atmosphere, and while these chemicals have a short lifespan, they can have effects we know nothing about.

In fact, according to the researchers’ calculations, you just soaked up a few billion molecules of it while reading.

What exactly this means for your health, not to mention the health of our planet, is literally and figuratively in the air. But since we just discovered this new ingredient in Earth’s atmosphere, it’s worth looking into.

“These connections have always been there — we just didn’t know about them,” say chemist Henrik Grum Kjærgaard of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

“But the fact that we now have evidence that the compounds are formed and live for a period of time means it’s possible to study their effect … and react if they prove to be dangerous.”

Very often in chemistry, the addition of just a single new component can radically change the behavior of a material.

Take water for example. The way the pair of hydrogen atoms and some oxygen interact allows organic chemistry to mix and swirl into an evolving phenomenon we call life.

Add one more oxygen, though, and we get hydrogen peroxide — a much more reactive compound that can shred living chemistry.

Stick another oxygen on this angry little molecule and the result is hydrotrioxide. Making you just need the right lab equipment, some saturated organic compounds, and some dry ice.

It’s not exactly the kind of party trick you’d use to spice up a margarita, but chemists have used their manufacture in generating a specific taste of molecular oxygen as a step in producing various other substances.

Because they are highly reactive, there is an open question as to whether hydrotrioxides can easily form stable structures in the atmosphere.

It’s not just an academic point of speculation, either. So much of the way our atmosphere works, from the intricate ways it affects personal health to the sheer scale of the global climate, stems from the way trace materials within it interact.

“Most human activity results in the emission of chemicals into the atmosphere. So knowledge of the reactions that determine atmospheric chemistry is important in predicting how our actions will affect the atmosphere in the future.” say Kristan H. Møller, also a chemist from the University of Copenhagen.

The team’s studies now provide the first direct observations of hydrogen trioxide formation under atmospheric conditions from various substances known to be present in our air.

This allowed them to study how the compound is likely to be synthesized, how long it lingers and how it degrades.

One of those emissions, called isoprene, can react in the atmosphere and generate about 10 million tons of hydrogen trioxide annually.

However, that is only one possible source. Based on the team’s calculations, in theory just about any compound could play a role in the formation of hydrotrioxides in the atmosphere, which remain intact for several minutes to several hours.

In that time, they can participate in a whole host of other reactions as a powerful oxidizing agent, some of which could be sheltered in microscopic solids floating on the wind.

“It is easy to imagine that new substances are formed in the aerosols that are harmful when inhaled. But to address these possible health effects, further research is needed.” say Kjargaard.

Since aerosols also affect the way our planet reflects sunlight, knowing how their internal chemistry causes them to grow or degrade could change how we model our climate.

Further research will undoubtedly unravel the role of hydrotrioxides in our planet’s atmospheric cocktail. As researcher Jing Chen of the University of Copenhagen points out, this is just the beginning.

“Indeed, the air around us is a huge jumble of complex chemical reactions,” say chen.

“As researchers, we need to keep an open mind if we want to get better at finding solutions.”

This research was published in Science

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