UK scientists part of new center funded by NSF, EPA to study environmental implications of nanotechnology

LEXINGTON, Ky., (Sep 18, 2008)

A team of University of Kentucky College of Agriculture scientists will join colleagues from other institutions to explore the potential ecological hazards of nanoparticles. The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have awarded $14.4 million to create the national Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology.

Paul Bertsch, a UK soil scientist, will lead the Kentucky team collaborating with the Duke University-based center.

Nanoparticles are as much as a million times smaller than the head of a pin, and have unusual properties compared with larger objects made from the same material. These unusual properties make nanomaterials attractive for use in everything from computer hard drives to sunscreens, cosmetics and medical technologies. However, the environmental implications of these materials are virtually unknown.
The research team plans to define the relationship between a vast array of nanomaterials - from natural to manmade to incidental byproduct nanoparticles - and their potential environmental exposure, biological effects and ecological consequences. Nanomaterials that are already in commercial use as well as several present in nature will be among the first materials studied.

"A distinctive element of the center will be the synthesis of information about nanoparticles into a rigorous risk assessment framework, the results of which will be transferred to policy-makers and society at large," said Mark Wiesner, James L. Meriam Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, who specializes in nanoparticle movement and transformation in the environment. Wiesner will be the center's director.

The core research team brings together internationally recognized leaders in environmental toxicology and ecosystem biology; nanomaterial transport, transformation and fate in the environment; biogeochemistry of nanomaterials and incidental airborne particulates; nanomaterial chemistry and fabrication; and environmental risk assessment, modeling, and decision sciences.

Bertsch and his UK colleagues, Jason Unrine and Olga Tsyusko, have been tapped by the center directors to contribute to understanding the transformations of nanomaterials in soil as well as the environmental toxicology and ecosystem biology of nanomaterials released to the environment.

Center Deputy Director Gregory V. Lowry from Carnegie Mellon University and co-principal investigator Kimberly Jones from Howard University each specialize in nanoparticle movement and transformations in the environment. Mike Hochella, a nanogeochemist from Virginia Tech, and Rich Di Giulio, an ecotoxicologist from Duke, are also co-principal investigators. Rounding out the team is collaborator Gordon Brown, a geochemist from Stanford University.

"We are pleased to be part of this outstanding interdisciplinary team of scientists," Bertsch said. "Understanding how nanomaterials move through the environment, how they are transformed in soils and how they interact with organisms is essential to developing an understanding of the ecological and human health risks associated with their widespread use. It is envisioned that the nanotechnology revolution will change all aspects of our life and transform the global economy.... It is critical that risks to the environment and human health be understood and properly managed so that this promise is realized. This is the ultimate goal of the center."

During the coming year, 32 tightly controlled and highly instrumented ecosystems will be developed in the Duke Forest in Durham, N.C. Known as mesocosms, these living laboratories provide areas where researchers can add nanoparticles and then study the resulting interactions and effects on plants, fish, bacteria and other elements.

The center will collaborate with the International Alliance for NanoEHS Harmonization, whose charter is to establish protocols for reproducible toxicological testing of nanomaterials in both cultured cells and animals. Universal standards for nanomaterials research and risk assessment will enable researchers to compare and contrast work conducted at laboratories around the world.

Additional investigators, including those at Clemson and North Carolina State universities, as well as U.S. government labs and foreign institutions will coordinate their own resources to bolster the center's effort. These partners include the EPA, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

International collaborators include the European Center for Research and Education in Geosciences and the Environment; Sciences Po; Buenos Aires Institute of Technology; Nankai University; Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research; Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology; and the Institute of Occupational Medicine, United Kingdom.

NSF and EPA are also funding a sister center based at the University of California system.

Contact: Paul Bertsch, 859-257-1651; Deborah Hill, Duke University, 919-660-8403

© 2013 Tracy Farmer Institute for Sustainability and the Environment