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Formation and growth of sub-3-nm aerosol particles in experimental chambers


Atmospheric new particle formation (NPF), which is observed in many environments globally, is an important source of boundary-layer aerosol particles and cloud condensation nuclei, which affect both the climate and human health. To better understand the mechanisms behind NPF, chamber experiments can be used to simulate this phenomenon under well-controlled conditions. Recent advancements in instrumentation have made it possible to directly detect the first steps of NPF of molecular clusters (~1–2 nm in diameter) and to calculate quantities such as the formation and growth rates of these clusters. Whereas previous studies reported particle formation rates as the flux of particles across a specified particle diameter or calculated them from measurements of larger particle sizes, this protocol outlines methods to directly quantify particle dynamics for cluster sizes. Here, we describe the instrumentation and analysis methods needed to quantify particle dynamics during NPF of sub-3-nm aerosol particles in chamber experiments. The methods described in this protocol can be used to make results from different chamber experiments comparable. The experimental setup, collection and post-processing of the data, and thus completion of this protocol, take from months up to years, depending on the chamber facility, experimental plan and level of expertise. Use of this protocol requires engineering capabilities and expertise in data analysis.

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Fig. 1: Simulated NPF experiment and instrument response.
Fig. 2: Anticipated results from an NPF experiment performed in a chamber.
Fig. 3: Calculation of GRs from chamber experiments using the maximum concentration method and the appearance time method.


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The CLOUD community is gratefully acknowledged for invaluable discussions. Partial funding was provided by the Academy of Finland (project nos. 316114 and 325647). The work was also supported by the Academy of Finland via the BioFuture2025 project ‘Nano BioMass’, an Academy professor project of M.K. and the Center of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences (project no. 307331), the European Commission via ACTRIS2 (project no. 654109) and the European Research Council via advanced grant ATM-GTP (project no. 742206).

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L.D., K. Lehtipalo, J. Kontkanen, T.N., K. Lehtinen, V.-M.K. and M.K. contributed to the development of the technique for calculating Jdp and GR. R.B., L.A., J.D., T.P., C.Y., B.C. and J. Kangasluoma contributed to development of the technique for calibrating and minimizing losses during particle measurement. All authors contributed to the writing of this protocol and to the scientific discussions related to it.

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Correspondence to Markku Kulmala or Juha Kangasluoma.

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Peer review information Nature Protocols thanks Véronique Riffault and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Lehtipalo, K. et al. Sci. Adv. 4, eaau5363 (2018):

Wagner, R. et al. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 17, 15181–15197 (2017):

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Dada, L., Lehtipalo, K., Kontkanen, J. et al. Formation and growth of sub-3-nm aerosol particles in experimental chambers. Nat Protoc 15, 1013–1040 (2020).

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