Researchers detect a chemical they thought was too unstable to survive

And it might have a hidden effect on climate change and human health.
Ameya Paleja
The Earth's atmosphereAleksandarGeorgiev/iStock

A multinational collaboration of researchers has found out that millions of tons of a highly reactive chemicals are formed in the Earth's atmosphere every year, Live Science reported.

Researchers were previously aware of the hydrotrioxides chemical but assumed that the highly reactive chemical would not last under atmospheric conditions. However, the new research shows that hydrotrioxides can remain in the atmosphere for at least 20 minutes.

What is a hydrotrioxide? 

A hydrotrioxide is a type of hydrogen polyoxide, which means a molecule made up of hydrogen and multiple oxygen atoms. Although you may not have heard of it before, water is also a type of hydrogen polyoxide. A molecule of water (H2O) consists of two atoms of hydrogen, and a single atom of oxygen is a relatively abundant hydrogen polyoxide. 

Hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is another type of hydrogen polyoxide and is a well-known reactive compound. Due to its highly reactive nature, hydrogen peroxide has been used as bleach or disinfectant. In some cases, the flammable nature of this chemical has also been used as a component of rocket fuels.  

Hydrotrioxide, as the name suggests, is a molecule with one hydrogen and three oxygen atoms. The molecule usually binds with a carbon group, denoted by R,  and is written at ROOOH. Hydrotrioxides remain more reactive than hydrogen peroxide even after binding with a carbon group. While it was previously known that hydrotrioxides form as a result of chemical reactions, it wasn't known that they also form in the atmosphere. 

How is hydrotrioxide formed? 

Researchers have found that the most common mode of formation of hydrotrioxides is the oxidation of isoprene. The main component of naturally occurring rubber, isoprene, is a volatile and colorless liquid that other plants and animals produce. 

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The researchers estimate that roughly one percent of the isoprene released into the atmosphere oxidizes, which gives us an estimated amount of 11 million tons (10 million metric tons) of hydrotrioxides are released into the atmosphere every year. To put it into perspective, human activity produces approximately 43 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year. 

How does it affect us? 

The highly reactive compound may not be produced at alarming rates. Still, now that the researchers have confirmed that it stays in the atmosphere for many minutes, it is necessary to understand how it might be affecting us and the atmosphere. 

The researchers speculate that the chemical can penetrate aerosols or tiny airborne particles, which have been associated with respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Since aerosols have also been known to impact climate, this chemical possibly plays a role there too. 

The researchers aren't very worried about their discovery, though. "These compounds have always been around – we just didn't know about them," said Henrik Grum Kjærgaard, the study's principal investigator. "The fact that we now have evidence that the compounds are formed and live for a certain amount of time means that it is possible to study their effect more targeted and respond if they turn out to be dangerous."

The study was published in the journal Science.  

Abstract

Organic hydrotrioxides (ROOOH) are known to be strong oxidants used in organic synthesis. Previously, it has been speculated that they are formed in the atmosphere through the gas-phase reaction of organic peroxy radicals (RO2) with hydroxyl radicals (OH). Here, we report direct observation of ROOOH formation from several atmospherically relevant RO2 radicals. Kinetic analysis confirmed rapid RO2 + OH reactions forming ROOOH, with rate coefficients close to the collision limit. For the OH-initiated degradation of isoprene, global modeling predicts molar hydrotrioxide formation yields of up to 1%, which represents an annual ROOOH formation of about 10 million metric tons. The atmospheric lifetime of ROOOH is estimated to be minutes to hours. Hydrotrioxides represent a previously omitted substance class in the atmosphere, the impact of which needs to be examined.

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