Atmospheric tar balls: Particles from biomass and biofuel burning

Mihály Pósfai, András Gelencsér, Renáta Simonics, Krisztina Arató, Jia Li, Peter V. Hobbs, P R Buseck

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293 Scopus citations


"Tar balls" are amorphous, carbonaceous spherules that occur in the tropospheric aerosol as a result of biomass and biofuel burning. They form a distinct group of particles with diameters typically between 30 and 500 nm and readily identifiable with electron microscopy. Their lack of a turbostratic microstructure distinguishes them from soot, and their morphology and composition (~90 mol % carbon) renders them distinct from other carbonaceous particles. Tar balls are particularly abundant in slightly aged (minutes to hours old) biomass smoke, indicating that they likely form by gas-to-particle conversion within smoke plumes. The material of tar balls is initially hygroscopic; however, the particles become largely insoluble as a result of free radical polymerization of their organic molecules. Consequently, tar balls are primarily externally mixed with other particle types, and they do not appreciably increase in size during aging. When tar balls coagulate with water-bearing particles, their material may partly dissolve and no longer be recognizable as distinct particles. Tar balls may contain organic compounds that absorb sunlight. They are an important, previously unrecognized type of carbonaceous (organic) atmospheric particle.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)D06213 1-9
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres
Issue number6
StatePublished - Mar 27 2004


  • Aerosol
  • Biomass burning
  • Tar ball

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geophysics
  • Oceanography
  • Forestry
  • Aquatic Science
  • Ecology
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Soil Science
  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Earth-Surface Processes
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Palaeontology


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