Wednesday, July 6

We have just discovered a new class of “super-reactive” chemical compounds. They may have been there a long time

Most of the time we are not even aware that the air around us is a huge gaseous mass with a multitude of elements and compounds. Among them, the oxygen that we breathe and that keeps us alive, or the carbon dioxide that we exhale, in addition to many others. The truth is that this mass of gas is a hotbed of chemical compounds that sometimes react with each other, changing shape as if they were in a laboratory.

A team of European and American scientists has discovered an entire category of these compounds: hydrotrioxides, molecules with three oxygen atoms linked together, extremely reactive, capable of interacting with other chemicals in their path. They have probably always been in our environment, but researchers warn that they can affect our health and the climate.

What exactly are hydrotrioxides?
Hydrotrioxides (ROOOH) are molecules with three consecutively bonded oxygen atoms (OOO) and an accompanying hydrogen atom (H), bonded to an organic moiety (R). Thanks to the new study, published in the journal Science, we now know that they can be formed in the atmosphere as a result of the encounter between various radicals, unstable molecules with a tendency to react with each other to form different compounds. Specifically, they would be the result of the union between a peroxide (molecule with two oxygen atoms attached, ROO) and an OH radical with one oxygen and one hydrogen atom.

How can these molecules affect us?
The potential risk of these molecules would be given, explains the team in charge of the study, by their interaction with aerosols, small liquid particles suspended in the air. Once they join these microdroplets, the hydrotrioxides would interact with the molecules inside them, reacting and forming new structures. These new structures would be the ones that could affect our health, explains Henrik Grum Kjaergaard, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen and co-author of the study. He points out, yes, that further research in this regard will be necessary.

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Altering aerosols can also lead to climatic effects, since aerosols have their own role in filtering the energy that comes from the Sun. This, explains Eva R. Kjaergaard, a researcher at Aarhus University in Copenhagen and co-author of the study, affects the heat balance of the Earth.

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More research will be necessary.
To determine how these particles affect our health and the climate, it will be necessary to analyze them better and study their reactions with other molecules in the environment, especially with aerosols, as the authors of the study point out. The authors point out that these compounds have been in our atmosphere for years, so the study does not imply that an increase in the incidence of these molecules on health or climate is expected.

However, it is advisable to study them carefully to find out if their existence entails risks and, if so, discover how to tackle them. One thing that this study has shown is the need to continue investigating, even something as mundane as the air that surrounds us can continue to bring us surprises.

From theory to discovery.
The existence of these molecules and their presence in the atmosphere had already been theorized by scientists, a theory that has now been reaffirmed by this team of experts. Similar compounds, hydroperoxides (ROOH), were already known to exist, but so far this variant has been observed for the first time in a laboratory that simulates terrestrial atmospheric conditions.

A key to the study is that it estimates that these compounds can last in the atmosphere for minutes or hours, which gives them enough time to interact with other molecules, oxidizing them. Another relevant factor is that they can be formed through heavier peroxides than previously believed.

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Image | Linden Arnhold, TROPES

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