Constraining the density and complex refractive index of elemental and organic carbon in biomass burning aerosol using optical and chemical measurements

G. Schkolnik, D. Chand, A. Hoffer, M. O. Andreae, C. Erlick, E. Swietlicki, Y. Rudich*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

64 Scopus citations


The role of biomass burning aerosols in the climate system is still poorly quantified, in part due to uncertainties regarding the optical properties of elemental and organic carbon (EC and OC, respectively), the main constituents of pyrogenic aerosols. In this study, we utilize comprehensive physical and chemical field measurements of biomass burning aerosols in Brazil to constrain the densities and refractive indices (RI) of EC and OC in these particles, by comparing their optically and chemically derived RI. The optically derived effective RI are retrieved from the measured absorption and scattering coefficients using a Mie scattering algorithm, and serve as a reference dataset, while the chemically derived effective RI are calculated from the measured chemical composition using electromagnetic mixing rules. The results are discussed in light of the observed combustion conditions, and in an effort to derive conclusions as to the chemical and optical properties of the usually less well-characterized components of biomass burning aerosols, namely, elemental carbon and organic matter. The best agreement between the optically and chemically derived RI was achieved by assigning a density of ρEC = 1.8 g cm- 3 and refractive index RIEC = 1.87 - 0.22 i to the EC component, and ρ = 0.9 g cm- 3 and RI = 1.4 - 0 i to the unidentified organic matter fraction of the particles. These parameters suggest low graphitization levels for the EC, and a dominant proportion of aliphatic compounds in the unidentified organic matter. Combining the density and RI of the unidentified organic matter with the properties of the chemically characterized organic fraction yields ρ = 1.1 g cm- 3 and RI = 1.3 - 0 i for the total aerosol OC.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)1107-1118
Number of pages12
JournalAtmospheric Environment
Issue number5
StatePublished - Feb 2007

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This paper is dedicated to the memory of our friend and colleague, Dr. Yoram J. Kaufman, who tragically passed away. His insights on this paper were pivotal, inspiring and greatly appreciated. This work was carried out within the framework of the Smoke, Aerosols, Clouds, Rainfall, and Climate (SMOCC) project, a European contribution to the Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA). It was financially supported by the Environmental and Climate Program of the European Commission (contract no EVK2-CT-2001-00110 SMOCC). This study was partially funded by the Minerva Foundation. In addition, we acknowledge T.W. Andreae and P. Guyon for making the EGA measurements used in this study.


  • Aerosol optical properties
  • Biomass burning
  • Elemental carbon
  • Organic carbon
  • Refractive index


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