Electrostatic forces alter particle size distributions in atmospheric dust

Joseph R. Toth, Siddharth Rajupet, Henry Squire, Blaire Volbers, Jùn Zhou, Li Xie, R. Mohan Sankaran, Daniel J. Lacks

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Large amounts of dust are lofted into the atmosphere from arid regions of the world before being transported up to thousands of kilometers. This atmospheric dust interacts with solar radiation and causes changes in the climate, with larger-sized particles having a heating effect, and smaller-sized particles having a cooling effect. Previous studies on the long-range transport of dust have found larger particles than expected, without a model to explain their transport. Here, we investigate the effect of electric fields on lofted airborne dust by blowing sand through a vertically oriented electric field, and characterizing the size distribution as a function of height. We also model this system, considering the gravitational, drag, and electrostatic forces on particles, to understand the effects of the electric field. Our results indicate that electric fields keep particles suspended at higher elevations and enrich the concentration of larger particles at higher elevations. We extend our model from the small-scale system to long-range atmospheric dust transport to develop insights into the effects of electric fields on size distributions of lofted dust in the atmosphere. We show that the presence of electric fields and the resulting electrostatic force on charged particles can help explain the transport of unexpectedly large particles and cause the size distribution to become more uniform as a function of elevation. Thus, our experimental and modeling results indicate that electrostatic forces may in some cases be relevant regarding the effect of atmospheric dust on the climate.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3181-3190
Number of pages10
JournalAtmospheric Chemistry and Physics
Issue number5
StatePublished - Mar 17 2020
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science

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