7 January 2010

Exploring planetary atmospheres

If it weren't for clouds, the earth atmosphere would seem very peaceful. But even a clear blue sky is host to an inferno of chemical reactions. And anyone who wants to understand the evolution of atmosphere and climate needs to understand these reactions first.

Photo: Michael JastremskiNow Professor Henrik Kjaergaard of the department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen has received a 5.6 million D.Kr. grant from the Danish Agency for Science, Technology and Innovation to explore the effect of molecular complexes on atmospheric reactions. Not just on our own atmosphere but also that of distant planets and moons.

Thanks to the support for the project "Molecule radical complexes in earth and planetary atmosphere" Professor Kjaergaard will now be able to hire one PhD and one or two postdocs. And he will be able to build an instrument capable of matrix isolation spectroscopy.

With his new instrument, Kjaergaard will be able to cool his molecules to just a few degrees Kelvin before analyzing them. And that is crucial. At room temperature, the radicals needing investigation would have decomposed and recomposed several times before the professor got a chance to even push the button.

- "People call radicals such as hydroxide 'The vacuum cleaner of the atmosphere' because they clean the atmosphere of practically everything. One thing they do is break down all the hydrocarbons we release. So the radicals are constantly forming and degrading", says Professor Kjaergaard

He goes on to explain how the central question is whether these reaction mechanisms are catalyzed by water molecules. In other words: Is there such a thing as water radical complexes. If these exist, they would radically alter the reaction times for chemical reactions in the atmospheres of planets, moons... And Earths.

- "Coming up with new reaction mechanisms would be really cool. That would mean, that we'd have to alter atmosphere modelling. And things like that are always fun", says Kjaergaard.

The project will be carried out in a collaborative effort with groups at University of Western Australia and George Madison University in USA, and Henrik Kjaergaard has high hopes for the cooperation.

- "In early 2009 I published a paper in Journal of American Chemical Society- with the same group of people. I guess that's why The Agency believes, that we can do something worthwhile again", says the professor with the kind of self-effacing smile that carries even through the telephone line.