Atmospheric and Planetary Chemistry

Atmospheric and Planetary Chemistry

We seek to understand the vital resource that is our atmosphere, which is essential for a sustainable future. Amongst other things, atmospheric chemistry influences air quality, human health, and climate change, and hence the future of our planet. Missions to other planets and moons in our solar system are revealing how extraordinarily diverse atmospheres have developed, which in turn helps to understand the evolution of our own atmosphere. Evermore detailed astronomical observations point to the complexity of chemistry in stellar environments.

More than a thousand exoplanets, which are around other stars in our galaxy, have now been discovered, and we’re starting to be able to detect their atmospheric properties. Unravelling the complexity of the chemistry of an atmosphere requires a range of complementary approaches from lab studies and field observations, through simulations to models.

Our work on Earth’s atmosphere is closely aligned with the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) strategic research areas which aim to tackle and provide solutions to major challenges of the 21st Century – The Earth Climate System, Sustainable Use of Finite Natural Resources, Air Pollution and Human Health and Managing Environmental Change.

We’re also developing a strong research programme into chemistry relevant to other planets in the solar system, to newly discovered exoplanets and the regions between stars. Our links to instrument manufacturers, government departments and a wide range of international collaborators are very strong.

Atmospheric chemistry

We apply laboratory measurements, field studies and computer modelling to the study of the Earth’s atmosphere. Research in this area focuses on:

  • Measuring key species in the atmosphere – e.g. oxidizing radicals in the troposphere (using laser-based techniques) and metallic species in the mesosphere (from satellites and rockets)
  • Laboratory studies to understand:
    • the chemical oxidation of volatile organic compounds, for example, emerging new biofuels, and how oxidation processes impact on air quality and climate change;
    • heterogeneous chemistry occurring on the surface of atmospheric aerosols and their role in the composition of the atmosphere
    • the chemistry of meteor-ablated metals in the upper atmosphere
  • Computer Modelling – Leeds researchers developed the Master Chemical Mechanism for detailed modelling of the troposphere, and researchers have contributed to the development of whole atmosphere models such as the Whole Atmosphere Community Climate Model (WACCM).

Many of these research interests are coordinated through the Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Science (ICAS), and we are a member of the Panorama NERC Doctoral Training Partnership and also the Priestley International Centre for Climate.

Planetary chemistry

The conditions of other planetary and lunar atmospheres in our solar system, as well as interstellar environments, are very different from Earth. Although some of the approaches are the same – a combination of laboratory work, observations and computer modelling is used to understand both chemical processes involving the gas-phase and interstellar dust::

  • Enhanced focus on chemistry at very low temperatures (<100 K) using a pulsed Laval expansion, specialised flow tubes and theoretical models such as the kinetics package MESMER
  • Our experience in combustion and high-temperature pyrolysis chemistry is relevant for the conditions of ‘super Earth’ and ‘hot Jupiter’ exoplanets
  • Laboratory studies of the chemistry of the formation of dust and complex organic molecules in interstellar environments

We have strong links with Physics and collaborations with colleagues in the USA at NASA, JPL and many university departments worldwide.


  • A range of state-of-the-art field measurement instruments, forming part of facilities within the National Centre for Atmospheric Science, NCAS
  • The Highly Instrumented Reactor for Atmospheric Chemistry (HIRAC) for atmospheric simulations
  • Ten interchangeable laser bays which allow the flexible combination of over 20 lasers to a range of apparatus including flow tubes, flash photolysis apparatus, time-of-flight mass spectrometers, and a Laval expansion
  • A state-of-the-art infrared frequency comb spectrometer for fundamental studies of kinetics, dynamics and spectroscopy
  • A range of computing facilities including access to the Leeds supercomputer ARC and N8 supercomputer.

Further information

View all members of our research group and publications.

PhD projects

We have opportunities for prospective postgraduate researchers. Find out more.

Contact us

If you are interested in collaborating with us or joining our research team, please contact Professor Dwayne Heard.