Aerosol microdroplets exhibit a stable pH gradient


Suspended aqueous aerosol droplets (< 50 mu m) are microreactors for many important atmospheric reactions. In droplets and other aquatic environments, pH is arguably the key parameter dictating chemical and biological processes. The nature of the droplet air/water interface has the potential to significantly alter droplet pH relative to bulk water. Historically, it has been challenging to measure the pH of individual droplets because of their inaccessibility to conventional pH probes. In this study, we scanned droplets containing 4-mercaptobenzoic acid-functionalized gold nanoparticle pH nanoprobes by 2D and 3D laser confocal Raman microscopy. Using surface-enhanced Raman scattering, we acquired the pH distribution inside approximately 20-mu m-diameter phosphate-buffered aerosol droplets and found that the pH in the core of a droplet is higher than that of bulk solution by up to 3.6 pH units. This finding suggests the accumulation of protons at the air/water interface and is consistent with recent thermodynamic model results. The existence of this pH shift was corroborated by the observation that a catalytic reaction that occurs only under basic conditions (i.e., dimerization of 4-aminothiophenol to produce dimercaptoazobenzene) occurs within the high pH core of a droplet, but not in bulk solution. Our nanoparticle probe enables pH quantification through the cross-section of an aerosol droplet, revealing a spatial gradient that has implications for acid-base-catalyzed atmospheric chemistry.



aerosol, droplet, pH, interface, SERS