Titan's organic aerosols: Molecular composition and structure of laboratory analogues inferred from pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry analysis
Morrisson et al
Analogues of Titan's aerosols are of primary interest in the understanding of Titan's atmospheric chemistry and climate, and in the development of in situ instrumentation for future space missions. Numerous studies have been carried out to characterize laboratory analogues of Titan aerosols (tholins), but their molecular composition and structure are still poorly known. If pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry (pyr-GCMS) has been used for years to give clues about their chemical composition, highly disparate results were obtained with this technique. They can be attributed to the variety of analytical conditions used for pyr-GCMS analyses, and/or to differences in the nature of the analogues analyzed, that were produced with different laboratory set-ups under various operating conditions.
In order to have a better description of Titan's tholin's molecular composition by pyr-GCMS, we carried out a systematic study with two major objectives: (i) exploring the pyr-GCMS analytical parameters to find the optimal ones for the detection of a wide range of chemical products allowing a characterization of the tholins composition as comprehensive as possible, and (ii) highlighting the role of the CH4 ratio in the gaseous reactive medium on the tholin's molecular structure. We used a radio-frequency plasma discharge to synthetize tholins with different concentrations of CH4 diluted in N2. The samples were pyrolyzed at temperatures covering the 200–700°C range. The extracted gases were then analyzed by GCMS for their molecular identification.
The optimal pyrolysis temperature for characterizing the molecular composition of our tholins by GCMS analysis is found to be 600°C. This temperature choice results from the best compromise between the number of compounds released, the quality of the signal and the appearance of pyrolysis artifacts. About a hundred molecules are identified as pyrolysates. A common major chromatographic pattern appears clearly for all the samples even if the number of released compounds can significantly differ. The hydrocarbon chain content increases in tholins when the CH4 ratio increases. A semi-quantitative study of the nitriles (most abundant chemical family in our chromatograms) released during the pyrolysis shows the existence of a correlation between the amount of a nitrile released and its molecular mass, similarly to the previous quantification of nitriles in the plasma gas-phase. Moreover, numerous nitriles are present both in tholins and in the gas phase, confirming their suspected role in the gas phase as precursors of the solid organic particles.