A Swiss army knife for aerosol composition - a community Chemical Ionisation Mass Spectrometry facility

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Earth Atmospheric and Env Sciences


The capital asset is a next-generation community capability to measure atmospheric composition that can be used to address critical science and policy-related problems across the NERC Research and Innovation theme remits.

Molecular compound identification is central to understanding many environmental processes. Advances in high performance mass spectrometry have developed rapidly but offline methods cannot capture dynamic processes owing to poor time resolution of the collected sample. Many current environmental challenges require rapid molecular detection and identification at high time resolution to understand highly dynamic processes. Recent advances now make this possible. Previous generations of instrument are expensive and complex to use, so they are only accessible to a few groups with the technological capability and infrastructure to support them. Further, ionisation schemes are often designed for detection of certain types of compounds and multiple instruments may be needed. This is costly and beyond the capabilities of many research groups. We propose a facility to deliver rapid detection and identification of a wide range of molecules with high sensitivity and specificity in both particle and gas phases in a single instrument and that can be applied to a wide range of atmospheric and environmental problems of pressing societal need.

The asset comprises a chemical ionisation mass spectrometer with a novel suite of interchangeable inlets and able to sample molecules in particles and gases into a single high resolution instrument, simultaneously running multiple ionisation sources (none requiring a radioactive source, as is commonly the case). Co-designed with a broad user community represented by the investigators, a bespoke data collection and analysis software suite will be developed to service a range of standard operating procedures for target applications, enabling turnkey operation of the asset. This ease-of-use is key to the provision of the asset as a community resource. It will enable deployment at partner institutions without the resource for operation of the current generation of instruments and hence a much broader user base, for which a usage model will be developed (including a model for more advanced operation and delivery).

By providing a multi-use integrated and easy to use facility for trace particle and gas characterisation, we will be able to rapidly rise to challenges associated with transition to Net Zero, to provide deep understanding of atmospheric challenges in the face of rapidly changing climate, the associated ecosystem responses, and a range of pressures arising from human activities. Environmental applications that the asset will make accessible include:

Impacts of indoor and outdoor air quality on health: i) toxicological hazard ranking of air pollution sources, ii) health inequalities associated with differential exposure to indoor and outdoor pollution
Atmospheric chemical transformations: i) primary and secondary aerosol ageing, ii) formation and transformation of secondary organic and inorganic aerosols and precursors, iii) impacts of novel trace gas chemistry
Surface - atmosphere exchange: i) quantification of terrestrial biogenic and anthropogenic PM and gas emission sources (e.g. ammonia, POA), ii) quantification of marine atmospheric processes
Plant VOC production: i) roles in regulating multitrophic interaction and plant competition, ii) promoting defensive VOC production by crop plants or neighbouring 'barrier' plants
Subsurface VOC modulation: i) eco-evolutionary implications of interactions in the rhizosphere, ii) VOC emission control by microbial activity and organic matter decomposition in soil, iii) novel pathways to convert waste CO2 to useful products tracked by VOCs as markers.
NERC and UKRI have made considerable investment in each area through the funding portfolio of our investigator team of leading researchers and across all NERC R&I themes.


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