Jul 23, 2007

MU Study Explores Environmental Effects of Nanomaterials

A new study at the University of Missouri-Columbia will attempt to discover the effects of nanotechnology on the environment.

Baolin Deng, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering in the College of Engineering, and Hao Li, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, have begun a project that focuses on nanomaterials and their effects – if any – on aquatic organisms.

The researchers received $399,506 from the Environmental Protection Agency to work with carbon nanotubes, nanofibers and silicon carbide nanowires, which are found in hydrogen storage devices, insulating materials and common consumer devices like electronics. These nanomaterials, which also often contain heavy metals, are strong compounds that don’t dissolve or easily break down, according to Deng.

Over a three-year period, the researchers will monitor toxicity levels and examine the materials’ effect on freshwater mussels, worms and amphipods, which resemble shrimp.

“Nanotechnology has tremendous potential,” Deng said. “People are talking about nanotechnology revolutionizing the world. With this type of potential, we have to know the environmental and human health dangers. If we find that some applications have the potential to harm the environment and endanger human health, we have to avoid using such materials or make sure there’s a risk management plan in place at the least.”

He said aquatic life is exposed to nanomaterials in a variety of ways. They include:

  • When consumer items utilizing these materials are discarded or placed in water where aquatic creatures live.
  • Through the disposal of nanoparticle waste in aquatic environments following manufacturing.
  • From damaged or leaking products utilizing nano-composite materials.
  • By human accident during transport and usage.

The study will be conducted in lab settings at MU in collaboration with Chris Ingersoll and Ning Wang, both aquatic toxicologists, at the Columbia Environmental Research Center of the US Geological Survey.