U.S. Department of Energy Office of Biological and Environmental Research

BER Research Highlights

Freezing Sea Spray Aerosols to Study Their Natural State
Published: January 15, 2016
Posted: November 01, 2016

A new method preserves sea spray aerosols for studying their natural structure.

The Science
Scientists can now trap sea spray aerosols in their natural state and accurately characterize their particle structure using a new microscopy approach.

The Impact
This approach will enable scientists to more easily investigate the influence of sea spray aerosols on climate and the environment.

Sea spray aerosols are a highly complex mixture of sea salt and organic components that are generated through wave action and bubble bursting where the air and sea meet. Obtaining detailed information about the structure and composition of these aerosols is crucial for understanding their role in cloud formation and their influence on climate. However, studying sea spray aerosols using conventional electron microscopy requires high-vacuum conditions that alter aerosol structure and prevent scientists from characterizing the natural configuration of these particles in the atmosphere. To address this problem, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Diego; Department of Energy’s (DOE) Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL); and University of Iowa developed a new approach that used cryogenic transmission electron microscopy. This approach involved flash freezing sea spray aerosol particles to preserve their natural configuration and then studying their structure with electron microscopy. The researchers used the environmental transmission electron microscope and scanning/transmission electron microscope at EMSL, a DOE user facility. Using this unique approach, the team of researchers was able to detect mixed salts and soft materials characterized by distinct biological, chemical, and physical processes. The researchers also demonstrated this approach could be used to study chemical and morphological changes that occur when particles are exposed to various environmental conditions, such as changing humidity. The ability to trap aerosols under environmentally relevant conditions will open new avenues for addressing many important questions about the chemical complexity and structure of aerosol particles and how they impact climate and the environment.

BER PM Contact
Paul Bayer, SC-23.1, 301-903-5324

PI Contact
James Evans
Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory

This work was supported by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Science, Office of Biological and Environmental Research, including support of the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory, a DOE user facility; the National Science Foundation; and National Institutes of Health.

Patterson, J. P., D. B. Collins, J. M. Michaud, J. L. Axson, C. M. Sultana, T. Moser, A. C. Dommer, J. Conner, V. H. Grassian, M. D. Stokes, G. B. Deane, J. E. Evans, M. D. Burkart, K. A. Prather, and N. C. Gianneschi. 2016. “Sea Spray Aerosol Structure and Composition Using Cryogenic Transmission Electron Microscopy,” ACS Central Science 2(1), 40-47. DOI: 10.1021/acscentsci.5b00344. (Reference link)

Related Links
EMSL highlight

Topic Areas:

  • Research Area: Atmospheric System Research
  • Research Area: DOE Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL)

Division: SC-23.1 Climate and Environmental Sciences Division, BER


BER supports basic research and scientific user facilities to advance DOE missions in energy and environment. More about BER

Recent Highlights

Aug 24, 2019
New Approach for Studying How Microbes Influence Their Environment
A diverse group of scientists suggests a common framework and targeting of known microbial processes [more...]

Aug 08, 2019
Nutrient-Hungry Peatland Microbes Reduce Carbon Loss Under Warmer Conditions
Enzyme production in peatlands reduces carbon lost to respiration under future high temperatures. [more...]

Aug 05, 2019
Amazon Forest Response to CO2 Fertilization Dependent on Plant Phosphorus Acquisition
AmazonFACE Model Intercomparison. The Science Plant growth is dependent on the availabi [more...]

Jul 29, 2019
A Slippery Slope: Soil Carbon Destabilization
Carbon gain or loss depends on the balance between competing biological, chemical, and physical reac [more...]

Jul 15, 2019
Field Evaluation of Gas Analyzers for Measuring Ecosystem Fluxes
How gas analyzer type and correction method impact measured fluxes. The Science A side- [more...]

List all highlights (possible long download time)