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Nucleation and growth of sulfate aerosol in coal-fired power plant plumes: Sensitivity to background aerosol and meteorology

by R. G. Stevens, J. R. Pierce, C. A. Brock, M. K. Reed, J. H. Crawford, J. S. Holloway, T. B. Ryerson, L. G. Huey, J. B. Nowak show all authors
Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics ()

Abstract

New-particle formation in the plumes of coal-fired power plants and other anthropogenic sulfur sources may be an important source of particles in the atmosphere. It remains unclear, however, how best to reproduce this formation in global and regional aerosol models with grid-box lengths that are 10s of kilometers and larger. The predictive power of these models is thus limited by the resultant uncertainties in aerosol size distributions. In this paper, we focus on sub-grid sulfate aerosol processes within coal-fired power plant plumes: the sub-grid oxidation of SO2 with condensation of H2SO4 onto newly-formed and pre-existing particles. We have developed a modeling framework with aerosol microphysics in the System for Atmospheric Modelling (SAM), a Large-Eddy Simulation/Cloud-Resolving Model (LES/CRM). The model is evaluated against aircraft observations of new-particle formation in two different power-plant plumes and reproduces the major features of the observations. We show how the downwind plume aerosols can be greatly modified by both meteorological and background aerosol conditions. In general, new-particle formation and growth is greatly reduced during polluted conditions due to the large pre-existing aerosol surface area for H2SO4 condensation and particle coagulation. The new-particle formation and growth rates are also a strong function of the amount of sunlight and NOx since both control OH concentrations. The results of this study highlight the importance for improved sub-grid particle formation schemes in regional and global aerosol models.

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