Unexpected quenching effect on new particle formation from the atmospheric reaction of methanol with SO3

Ling Liu, Jie Zhong, Hanna Vehkamäki, Theo Kurtén, Lin Du, Xiuhui Zhang, Joseph S. Francisco, Xiao Cheng Zeng

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Scopus citations


Despite the high abundance in the atmosphere, alcohols in general and methanol in particular are believed to play a small role in atmospheric new particle formation (NPF) largely due to the weak binding abilities of alcohols with the major nucleation precursors, e.g., sulfuric acid (SA) and dimethylamine (DMA). Herein, we identify a catalytic reaction that was previously overlooked, namely, the reaction between methanol and SO3, catalyzed by SA, DMA, or water. We found that alcohols can have unexpected quenching effects on the NPF process, particularly in dry and highly polluted regions with high concentrations of alcohols. Specifically, the catalytic reaction between methanol and SO3 can convert methanol into a less-volatile species––methyl hydrogen sulfate (MHS). The latter was initially thought to be a good nucleation agent for NPF. However, our simulation results suggest that the formation of MHS consumes an appreciable amount of atmospheric SO3, disfavoring further reactions of SO3 with H2O. Indeed, we found that MHS formation can cause a reduction of SA concentration up to 87%, whereas the nucleation ability of MHS toward new particles is not as good as that of SA. Hence, a high abundance of methanol in the atmosphere can lower the particle nucleation rate by as much as two orders of magnitude. Such a quenching effect suggests that the recently identified catalytic reactions between alcohols and SO3 need to be considered in atmospheric modeling in order to predict SA concentration from SO2, while also account for their potentially negative effect on NPF.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)24966-24971
Number of pages6
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number50
StatePublished - Dec 10 2019


  • Alcohols
  • Atmospheric aerosol
  • Catalytic reactions
  • Nucleation precursors
  • SO

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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