A molecule discovered in the atmosphere could have the potential to combat global warming by "cooling the planet", scientists claim.

Researchers from the universities of Manchester and Bristol and Sandia National Laboratories have published a paper exploring the potentials of oxidising molecules called Criegee biradicals.

The paper, published in Science, describes the biradicals as powerful oxidisers of pollutants including notrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide, meaning they could theoretically be used to "clean up" the atmosphere and produce more cloud cover.

The existence of the molecules was first theorised in the 50s, but not detected until now.

Scientists used the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Advanced Light Source, which provided intense light, to detect the molecules.

The biradicals were found to have the ability to accelerate the formation of sulphate and nitrate in the atmosphere. These compounds could lead to cloud formation with the potential of helping cool the planet.

"Criegee biradicals have been impossible to measure until the work carried out at the Advanced Light Source. We have been able to quantify how fast Criegee radicals react for the first time," said co-author Dr Carl Percival, reader in atmosphere and chemistry at the University of Manchester.

"Our results will have a significant impact on our understanding of the oxidising capacity of the atmosphere and have wide-ranging implications for pollution and climate change.

"The main source of the Criegee biradicals does not depend on sunlight and so these processes take place throughout the day and night."

Professor Dudley Shallcross, professor in atmospheric chemistry at the University of Bristol, said: " A significant ingredient required for the production of these Criegee biradicals comes from chemicals released quite naturally by plants, so natural ecosystems could be playing a significant role in offsetting warming"

The average temperature of the Earth has increased by approximately 0.8°C and two thirds of that increase has occurred over the last 30 years. Global warming experts warn that future warming should be limited to below 2°C