An entirely new type of highly reactive chemical has been found in the atmosphere

Every lung of air we ingest consists mostly of nitrogen, with a generous helping of oxygen, and a dash of carbon dioxide.

But this atmospheric soup flick is a whole encyclopedia of different compounds and elements, some of which we can only speculate about.

However, one of those mysteries has been focused on. Chemists have shown that a reactive class of compounds called organic hydrogen oxides are present in the atmosphere, and while these chemicals only last for a short time, they can have effects we don’t know about.

In fact, by the researchers’ calculations, I absorbed a few billion molecules while reading this.

Exactly what this means for your health, not to mention the health of our planet, is literally and figuratively up in the air. But given that we’ve just discovered this new component in Earth’s atmosphere, it’s worth looking into.

“These compounds have always been around – we just didn’t know anything about them,” says chemist Henrik Grum Kjærgaard of the University of Copenhagen in Denmark.

“But the fact that we now have evidence that compounds form and live for a certain length of time means that it is possible to study their effect … and respond to them if they turn out to be dangerous.”

Often in chemistry, the addition of one new component can radically change the behavior of a substance.

Take water for example. Thanks to the way the single hydrogen-oxygen pair interact, organic chemistry can blend and spin into an evolving phenomenon we call life.

Add one more oxygen, though, and we get hydrogen peroxide – a more reactive compound that can disrupt living chemistry.

I stick another oxygen on this angry little molecule, and the result is hydrotrioxide. To make it, you just need the right kind of lab equipment, some saturated organic compounds, and some dry ice.

It’s not exactly a party trick you use to flavor a margarita, but chemists have used their manufacture to generate a specific flavor from molecular oxygen as a step in the production of various other substances.

Since it is highly reactive, there was an open question whether aqueous oxidation could easily form stable structures in the atmosphere.

It’s not just an academic point to speculate either. Much of the way our atmosphere operates, from the complex ways in which it affects personal health to the sheer scale of global climate, stems from the way the trace materials in it interact.

Says Kristan H. Muller, also a chemist from the University of Copenhagen.

The team’s investigations now provide the first direct observations of hydrogen hydroxide formation under atmospheric conditions from several substances known to be present in air.

This allowed them to study the way the compound is likely to be synthesized, how long it lasts, and how it degrades.

One of these emissions, called isoprene, can react in the atmosphere to generate about 10 million metric tons of hydrogen oxide each year.

This is just one potential source. Based on the team’s calculations, almost any compound could theoretically play a role in forming the atmosphere of aqueous oxidants, which remain intact for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.

At that time, they can participate in a large number of other reactions as a strong oxidizer, some of which can be protected within microscopic solids drifting on the wind.

“It is easy to imagine that new substances forming in aerosols would be harmful if inhaled,” says Kjærgaard. “But more research is needed to address these potential health effects.”

Because aerosols also affect the way our planet reflects sunlight, knowing how its internal chemistry causes it to grow or deteriorate could change the way our climate is modeled.

No doubt, further investigations will begin to reveal the role hydrotrioxides play in our planet’s atmospheric cocktail. And as University of Copenhagen researcher Jing Chen points out, this is just the beginning.

“In fact, the air around us is a huge tangle of complex chemical reactions,” says Chen.

“As researchers, we need to be open-minded if we want to be better at finding solutions.”

This research was published in Sciences.

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