Organic hydrotrioxides: The highly reactive chemicals present in the air we breathe

Fareeha Arshad
Photo byPhoto by Eugene Zhyvchik on Unsplash

Scientists have recently discovered the details of the chemical makeup of the air we breathe. While nitrogen and oxygen make up most of the air, numerous other compounds and elements are present in the atmosphere, some of which remain a mystery. However, chemists have now identified a highly reactive class of compounds known as organic hydrotrioxides in the atmosphere. Although these chemicals have a short lifespan, they could still have unknown effects on human health and the environment.

According to the researchers’ estimates, billions of molecules of these hydrotrioxides could have been inhaled just by reading this article. While the health implications of these compounds are still unknown, their discovery provides a starting point for further research.

Chemistry is a complex science, and adding even one new component can significantly alter the behaviour of a substance. Hydrogen peroxide, for example, is a highly reactive compound that can cause significant damage to living tissue. Add one more oxygen atom to this molecule, and we get hydrotrioxide, the newly discovered compound. Although it can be synthesized in a laboratory, the question remains whether it could form stable structures in the atmosphere.

Through their investigations, the researchers observed hydrotrioxide forming under atmospheric conditions from several substances present in the air. This allowed them to study the compound’s synthesis, lifespan, and degradation. They discovered that a compound called isoprene, which can be emitted into the atmosphere can generate around 10 million metric tons of hydrotrioxide each year. However, the team’s calculations suggest that almost any compound in the atmosphere could play a role in forming hydrotrioxides.

One of the biggest challenges with studying atmospheric compounds is understanding their interaction with other substances in the air. These compounds can be sheltered inside microscopic solids drifting in the wind and participate in other reactions as powerful oxidants. Furthermore, aerosols significantly impact how our planet reflects sunlight, and knowing how their internal chemistry causes them to grow or degrade could have implications for climate modelling.

While this discovery is just the beginning of our understanding of hydrotrioxides’ role in our atmosphere, it highlights the complex chemistry of the air we breathe. Researchers must continue investigating these compounds to unravel their effects on human health and the environment.

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I am a scientist by profession and a historian by passion. I mostly write about history and science.

Texas State

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