Optimizing the Activation Efficiency of Sub-3 Nm Particles in a Laminar Flow Condensation Particle Counter: Model Simulation


The measurement of airborne particles with sizes below 3 nm is critical, as it helps the understanding of atmospheric nucleation and elucidates important particle synthesis mechanisms in the gas phase. Condensation particle counters (CPCs) have been widely used to measure the concentration of aerosols. However, it is challenging for the CPCs to measure particles below 3 nm due to the insufficient activation of these particles via vapor condensation. Methods have been proposed to increase the saturation ratio of the condensing vapor to promote the detection efficiency of sub-3 nm particles in the CPCs. Different working fluids also make a considerable impact on particle detection. Given the various types of parameters and the wide range of values these parameters can take, modeling studies are needed in searching for the optimal operating conditions of a CPC.

In this work, we simulated the sub-3 nm particle activation and growth in a laminar flow CPC using COMSOL Multiphysics®, which has the advantages of simulating complex flow conditions and interfacing with post-processing software such as MATLAB. Our simulation incorporates the influence of temperature-dependent air and working fluid properties on particle activation and the impact of latent heat and non-continuum effects on droplet growth. Following the method introduced by Iida, Stolzenburg and McMurry (2009), particle activation is optimized for a given working fluid and condenser temperature by adjusting the saturator temperature to achieve a homogeneous nucleation rate of 1 s-1. The results, characterized by Dkel,0 (largest particle size that cannot be activated) and Dkel,50 (particle size activated with 50% efficiency), were compared against the analytical Graetz model used in Stolzenburg (1988). Our COMSOL simulations show that glycerine, diethylene glycol, ethylene glycol, 2-aminoethanol, and dimethyl phthalate are the best five working fluids achieving the smallest Dkel,50 among 45 commonly used solvents. The Dkel,50 values simulated by COMSOL under a condenser temperature of 10 °C for the five working fluids are 1.56, 1.88, 1.92, 1.98, and 2.10 nm, respectively, while the values simulated by the analytical Graetz solution differ slightly from 0.4% to 0.7%. The results demonstrate excellent agreement between these two simulation methods. For the five best working fluids activating the same 2.1 nm particles, the droplets can grow to sizes detectable by a second-stage CPC. The sensitivity of the COMSOL solution to the inlet condition and the form of convective diffusion equations is investigated. We also discussed the effect of CPC operating conditions, such as the condenser geometry and flow conditions, on particle activation for optimizing the performance of the CPC in detecting sub-3 nm particles.


Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering


National Science Foundation, Grant 2132655

Keywords and Phrases

COMSOL; Condensation Particle Counter; Simulation; Sub-3 Nm Particles; Working Fluid

International Standard Serial Number (ISSN)

1879-1964; 0021-8502

Document Type

Article - Journal

Document Version


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© 2021 Elsevier, All rights reserved.

Publication Date

01 Nov 2021