Posted May 23, 2019 08:00:00In the past few years, we’ve seen a flurry of interest in studying the life cycle of carbon, a molecule that makes up 95% of the atmosphere.
Many people are now trying to figure out how carbon is made, and how it gets into the atmosphere in the first place.
Researchers have been using electron-trapping and mass spectrometry to find out how the molecule interacts with other molecules.
But these methods can only work on a molecule’s surface.
Now, scientists at MIT and Caltech have built a system that can study the entire life cycle—from the very first molecules in the atmosphere to the carbon-containing rings of the ozone layer.
Using a new technique called the electron-trap-mass spectrometer, the team was able to study all the carbon atoms in the air, and they were able to get pretty detailed information about the atoms’ chemical structure.
“We were able then to figure it out,” said Christopher Whelan, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Chemical Engineering and a co-author of the new study.
“This is a really exciting discovery.
We can now understand the whole carbon-chain chain, not just what’s in the carbon chain but what’s inside it.
It’s really important to know the whole chain.”
In addition to the electron traps, the MIT team was also able to use a combination of mass spectroscopy and electron-detecting spectroscopes to find all the electron configurations of carbon molecules.
“If you have a single carbon atom, you don’t know how to make other atoms,” said Whelin.
“It’s just an empty shell of carbon.
You’re left with an empty mass spectra.
We were able now to get that data.”
These new findings are a major step toward understanding how carbon behaves in the environment.
Whelina said that it could help us understand how life forms evolved over the course of billions of years.
“If you look at the evolution of life in the ocean, we know that it starts with just a single molecule.
But that’s not how life started in the deep ocean,” he said.
“Life in the terrestrial environment starts with a complex, nested chain of molecules that eventually gives rise to the life forms that we see today.”
The team’s results were published in the journal Nature Communications.
The MIT team hopes that their work will lead to better ways of studying life forms in the future.
“There’s an immense amount of data that is still not available, and there are many different kinds of experiments that are trying to determine how life is formed,” Whelian said.
The findings also may help to solve some of the fundamental problems in understanding how life originated in the Earth’s atmosphere.
In the 1970s, scientists theorized that a chemical called carbon monoxide might have been the cause of the Earths carbon cycle, but there was no direct evidence that carbon monoxygen was involved.
Whetan added that carbon dioxide was the main ingredient of the atmospheric oxygen.
“We could tell that carbon was present in the oceans,” he explained.
“But how was it there?
Was it a pollutant?
Or is it an organic molecule?
And so we started looking for a better way to understand how this is happening.”