Main content area

A review of biomarker compounds as source indicators and tracers for air pollution

Simoneit, Bernd R. T.
Environmental science and pollution research international 1999 v.6 no.3 pp. 159-169
aerosols, air pollution, airshed, atmospheric chemistry, biomarkers, biomass, biopolymers, burning, cellulose, chemical structure, combustion, conifers, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, geochemistry, lipids, microorganisms, oils, organic matter, particulate emissions, petroleum, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, solvents, soot, steam, temperature, tracer techniques, volatilization
An overview of the application of organic geochemistry to the analysis of organic matter on aerosol particles is presented here. This organic matter is analyzed as solvent extractable bitumen/ lipids by gas chromatography-mass spectrometry. The organic geochemical approach assesses the origin, the environmental history and the nature of secondary products of organic matter by using the data derived from specific molecular analyses. Evaluations of production and fluxes, with cross-correlations can thus be made by the application of the same separation and analytical procedures to samples from point source emissions and the ambient atmosphere. This will be illustrated here with typical examples from the ambient atmosphere (aerosol particles) and from emissions of biomass burning (smoke).Organic matter in aerosols is derived from two major sources and is admixed depending on the geographic relief of the air shed. These sources are biogenic detritus (e.g., plant wax, microbes, etc.) and anthropogenic particle emissions (e.g., oils, soot, synthetics, etc.). Both biogenic detritus and some of the anthropogenic particle emissions contain organic materials which have unique and distinguishable compound distribution patterns (C₁₄-C₄₀). Microbial and vascular plant lipids are the dominant biogenic residues and petroleum hydrocarbons, with lesser amounts of the pyrogenic polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and synthetics (e.g., chlorinated compounds), are the major anthropogenic residues.Biomass combustion is another important primary source of particles injected into the global atmosphere. It contributes many trace substances which are reactants in atmospheric chemistry and soot paniculate matter with adsorbed biomarker compounds, most of which are unknown chemical structures. The injection of natural product organic compounds into smoke occurs primarily by direct volatilization/steam stripping and by thermal alteration based on combustion temperature. Although the molecular composition of organic matter in smoke particles is highly variable, the molecular tracers are generally still source specific. Retene has been utilized as a tracer for conifer smoke in urban aerosols, but is not always detectable. Dehydroabietic acid is generally more concentrated in the atmosphere from the same emission sources. Degradation products from biopolymers (e.g., levoglucosan from cellulose) are also excellent tracers. An overview of the biomarker compositions of biomass smoke types is presented here. Defining additional tracers of thermally-altered and directly-emitted natural products in smoke aids the assessment of the organic matter type and input from biomass combustion to aerosols. The precursor to product approach of compound characterization by organic geochemistry can be applied successfully to provide tracers for studying the chemistry and dispersion of ambient aerosols and smoke plumes.