Nanotechnology is changing many products. Engineered particles smaller than a virus can make batteries, safer food and cleaner socks.
But there are a lot of questions about what happens to those nanoparticles when they find their way into the environment.
A new federally funded research center based in Wisconsin brings together scientists from several states to help answer those questions.
Nanoparticles are materials engineered at the molecular level. Those new materials have properties that allow significant advances in areas of science like medical technology and renewable energy.
There are already more than 800 consumer products using nanotechnology, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. But some nanoparticles have properties that could damage the environment. The particles can be released from factories or enter the water supply when clothes are washed or cosmetics go down the drain.
The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, based at the University of Wisconsin - Madison will try to identify those environmental risks. Professors from six Midwestern universities and a U.S. Department of Energy scientist will collaborate on the research.
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The center's director, Robert Hamers, a professor of chemistry of UW-Madison, said researchers start by examining how cells react to various nanoparticles.
"Even at relatively low levels, oftentimes what nanoparticles will do is they will induce changes in the cellular machinery," Hamers said. "In the metabolism of the cell, that can result in changes in things like gene expression."
And when the wrong gene is turned on or off, there can be subtle long-term damage.
"Of particular importance here is ultimately understanding what might be the effect on reproduction and whether there might be transgenerational effects," he said.
To understand the potential risk of nanoparticles, researchers need to understand how nanoparticles affect cells and genes. But they also need to understand how nanoparticles react in the complex natural environment.
Studying nanoparticles in the environment is a challenge. There are few tools for researchers to even measure nanoparticles in water or soil. And nanoparticles change as they interact with the environment. For example, sunlight makes some particles more toxic.
University of Minnesota scientist Christy Haynes, who is part of the new nano research initiative, has been studying nano toxicity for seven years. Haynes said in some cases scientists are still wrestling with basic questions.
"How many nanoparticles are leaving manufacturing plants and ending up in our wastewater treatment plants and getting into our water?" Haynes said. "That is really not well known. I don't think anybody is confident that we even know for sure what level of nanoparticles we should be looking at."
Scientists also need to figure out what concentration of nanoparticles is dangerous. They are developing better ways to track and measure nanoparticles in the environment.
Not all products pose environmental risk, and scientists don't believe the nanoparticles now in use will cause serious problems, at least in the short term. But Hamers said science needs to stay ahead of rapidly developing nanotechnology.
"We can't really wait until we know what kinds of nanoparticles are likely to make it into technology in order to test those," Hamers said. "We need to develop ground rules for developing a fundamental mechanistic understanding of what classes of nanoparticles are more or less likely to be toxic."
And if scientists can understand what makes a nanoparticle toxic, they might be able to fix it. Nanoparticles are manufactured, so even slight modifications in how they are made could reduce or eliminate potential toxic effects.
Haynes at the U said that's why she is optimistic about preventing significant environmental damage from nanoparticles.
"We want to understand what's happening at the molecular interface well enough that you can come up with design rules that you can essentially control the toxicity of nanoparticles," Haynes said. "So that you can make the best use of them you can, technologically, and feel confident about how they're going to behave through the life cycle of the particle."
Scientists hope to develop computer models that will identify toxic properties of nano materials before they are used in consumer products.
The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology is funded by a three-year, $1.75 million National Science Foundation grant. Based on what they accomplish in the first two years, the scientists might get long-term NSF funding to expand the nano toxics research.
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