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Self-Organisation of Cooking Emissions in Urban Aerosols?

  • Full or part time
  • Application Deadline
    Monday, January 21, 2019
  • Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

The project will investigate the potential impact on cloud formation & urban pollution of self-organisation within aerosol particles. Atmospheric aerosols arise from human activity, and influence whether clouds form, how quickly molecules degrade and therefore how long they persist in the atmosphere. Fatty acids & esters are key components of urban aerosols and emitted in substantial quantities from cooking.
So far little consideration has been given as to how these molecules arrange themselves within atmospheric aerosols, and the effects this organisation may have on aerosol properties. Fatty acids are “surface-active” molecules ("surfactants"), possessing water-loving heads & water-hating tails, causing such molecules to accumulate at the outside of water droplets thus determining key aerosol surface properties, such as the ability to nucleate clouds, even at low concentrations. From laboratory experiments, it is known that, within water droplets, surfactants self-organise to form a rich variety of 3–D structures including crystal-like arrays called "lyotropic phases" containing nanoscale sheets, spheres ("micelles") or cylinders, strongly affecting physical properties including diffusion, viscosity & water uptake. These physical properties are key in an atmospheric context, e.g. for cloud formation & chemical lifetimes of organic molecules, with implications for local weather & human health.
We will collect urban aerosols in Birmingham –with particular focus on cooking emissions– and then study the 3–D structure of atmospheric samples & aerosol proxies using complementary cutting-edge methods with an exciting potential to make a step-change in the understanding of the effects of the aerosol’s internal structure on chemical reactions, cloud nucleation, and the transport speed through the droplets & on atmospheric lifetimes, and thus for their impact on local weather, urban air quality and human health.
This project is co-developed with the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) building on a current joint NERC grant on impact of air pollution on insect communication. Co-I Dr Langford has extensive experience in field sampling, specifically using state-of-the-art instruments such as PTR-Qi-TOF-MS systems available both at CEH and within GEES. Co-I Dr Shi is science coordinator of the Atmospheric Pollution and Human Health in a Chinese megacity (APHH-China) programme and coordinated two successful field campaigns in Beijing. Drs Langford and Shi thus provide outstanding expertise in field studies synergistically complementing Dr Pfrang’s expertise in laboratory studies of self-organised samples.
For further information, please contact Dr Christian Pfrang, School of Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Birmingham (; 0121 414 5519; webpage:

Funding Notes

CENTA studentships are for 3.5 years and are funded by NERC. In addition to the full payment of their tuition fees, successful candidates will receive the following financial support:

Annual stipend, set at £14,777 for 2018/19
Research training support grant (RTSG) of £8,000


BBC News (2017) ‘Deep fat fryers may help form cooling clouds’ Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2018).
Chemistry World (2014) ‘Out of the frying pan and into the atmosphere’ Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2018).
CNN (2017) ‘How your scalding hot deep fryer might help cool the weather’ Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2018).
Diamond Light Source Science Highlight (2017) ‘Cooking oil and clouds’ Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2018).
MAXIV Science Highlight (2017) ‘Are cooking fats affecting clouds?’ Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2018).
Pfrang, C., Rastogi, K., Cabrera E., Seddon, A. M., Dicko, C., Labrador, A., Plivelic, T., N. Cowieson and Squires, A. M. (2017) ‘Complex Three-Dimensional Self-Assembly in Proxies for Atmospheric Aerosols.’ Nature Communications, 8, 1724. doi: 10.1038/s41467-017-01918-1.
Seddon, A. M., Richardson, S., Rastogi, K., Plivelic, T., Squires, A. M. and Pfrang, C. (2016) ‘Control of Nanomaterial Self-Assembly in Ultrasonically Levitated Droplets’ Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, 7, 1341–1345. doi: 10.1021/acs.jpclett.6b00449.
The Telegraph (2017) ‘Cloudy with a chance of meatballs: how frying food could be altering the weather’ Available at: (Accessed: 30 October 2018).

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