Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) are toxic organic trace components in atmospheric aerosols that have impacts on climate and human health. They are bound to airborne particles and transported over long distances. Observations of their distribution, transport pathways, and degradation are crucial for risk assessment and mitigation. Such estimates would benefit from online detection of PAHs along with analysis of the carrying particles to identify the source. Typically, laser desorption/ionization (LDI) in a bipolar mass spectrometer reveals the inorganic constituents and provides limited molecular information. In contrast, two-step ionization approaches produce detailed PAH mass spectra from individual particles but without the source-specific inorganic composition. Here we report a new technique that yields the single-particle PAH composition along with both positive and negative inorganic ions via LDI. Thus, the complete particle characterization and source apportionment from conventional bipolar LDI-analysis becomes possible, combined with a detailed PAH spectrum for the same particle. The key idea of the method is spatiotemporal matching of the ionization laser pulse to the transient component distribution in the particle plume after laser desorption. The technique is robust and field-deployable with only slightly higher costs and complexity compared to two-step approaches. We demonstrate its capability to reveal the PAH-distribution on different particle types in combustion aerosols and ambient air.


Graphical Abstract

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