Atmospheric chemistry helps to anticipate changes in air quality

According to Theo Kurten, machine learning will soon revolutionise the prediction of chemical reaction paths.

What are your research topics? 

I investigate chemical reactions that take place in the atmosphere, which turn, for example, hydrocarbons or other compounds into chemically more complex products increasingly capable of condensing.  

Such reactions are exceptional, since most reactions in the atmosphere result in the breaking down of compounds, with products that are almost always less complex than their precursors. For example, most of the hydrocarbons released into the air eventually form carbon dioxide and water. 

I utilise in my research computational tools based on quantum mechanics and collaborate closely with researchers who perform measurements.  

Where and how does the topic of your research have an impact?

One concrete example is how we determined a few years ago why the molecules underlying the scent of the pine and spruce behave in different ways in the atmosphere, even though their chemical structures are almost identical. The answer relates to the relative stabilities of the intermediate products generated by the oxidation of molecules. 

Knowing how compounds form products capable of condensing is useful for modelling and understanding both air quality and the climate. For example, we can help anticipate how changes in vegetation or human activity, including nitrogen oxide emissions, are likely to change air quality in different locations.  

What is particularly inspiring in your field right now?

The buzz about the possibilities of artificial intelligence and machine learning has been going on for a long time in different fields. In my field, the results gained from machine learning have so far been fairly modest, but now it genuinely appears that revolutionary new applications for, for example, predicting chemical reaction paths are almost here. 


Theo Kurten is the professor of atmospheric chemistry at the Faculty of Science.

Read about the other newly appointed professors.