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New Center of Excellence to reveal the secrets of clouds

Cloud formation and what actually happens inside clouds is one of the great mysteries in climate research. The solution to the mystery can be extremely important for climate research, and now a new Center of Excellence at Aarhus University will find answers by looking closely at clouds.

Photo: Lars Kruse, AU Photo

How is a cloud formed? And how do forest trees, sea foam and combustion processes affect clouds in the sky? These are just some of the questions that Professor Merete Bilde wants to find answers to. She has just been selected to negotiate a contract with the Danish National Research Foundation to establish the Center for Chemistry of Clouds (C3).

Cloud formation is one of the great mysteries of climate research, says the professor, and solving the mystery may have a major impact on climate research of the future and on how we manage the climate crisis.

"If we want to understand the climate and find solutions to the climate crisis, we need a better understanding of how clouds are formed and what happens inside clouds. Today, we lack understanding of these processes at molecular level. When we obtain this understanding, I hope we’ll be able to help improve climate models, and improve our response to climate change," explains Merete Bilde.

Molecules, aerosols and the climate 

Globally, clouds cover 2/3 of the sky, and they can only be formed if there are aerosol particles in the atmosphere. Aerosols are small particles in the air, and they differ depending on their surroundings. This means that aerosol particles in a pine forest are different from particles above the beach or in a city, for example, and this also makes the research more complex. In other words, there is not a single recipe for clouds. 

"We're already researching into aerosols, but the new basic research centre will make it possible for us to combine different areas of expertise. We haven't been able to do this before, and being able to concentrate on research into aerosols and clouds is a huge opportunity," says the future centre director.

Merete Bilde has designed and built a facility to simulate atmospheric processes (the AURA chamber) in one of the laboratories at Aarhus University. The chamber has a large container in which researchers can adjust the temperature, humidity and climate to simulate the air in a particular area. Different kinds of aerosol particles can be formed in the chamber, and these can be extracted from the chamber and analysed using advanced equipment. This makes it possible to understand the chemical composition and structure of aerosols, what their surface looks like, and under what conditions they can contribute to cloud formation. The experiments will be complemented by quantum mechanical calculations. 

"C3 is a basic research centre, and new insights into aerosols at molecular scale can provide new methods that can be used within climate research, and probably within other areas where aerosols are key, for example medicine and material science," she explains.

International beacon in Danish research

The Danish National Research Foundation has invited 11 top Danish researchers to negotiate contracts on new centres, and the foundation is ready to invest a total of DKK 625 million in the centres, which will conduct ground-breaking and innovative research. 

"We believe that the 11 new Centers of Excellence will be international beacons in Danish research, that they’ll set the agenda and provide ground-breaking results in their field," says Professor Jens Kehlet Nørskov, who is chair of the board of the Danish National Research Foundation.

The foundation is ready to provide up to DKK 59,998,000 to Professor Merete Bilde and the Center for Chemistry of Clouds.

"It's amazing that the Danish National Research Foundation believes in the centre. I’m very pleased with the prospect of being able to concentrate on our research. A team of top researchers is ready to conduct research in C3, and I believe that together we can come a long way. This is huge," says Merete with a smile.


Key participants in the Center for Chemistry of Clouds (C3)

Professor Merete Bilde, Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University, mail: bilde@chem.au.dk, mobile: +4524447138

Associate Professor Marianne Glasius, Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University

Associate Professor Tobias Weidner, Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University

Professor Ove Christiansen, Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University

Assistant Professor Jonas Elm, Department of Chemistry, Aarhus University