The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have awarded $14.4 million to create the Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT) to explore the potential ecological hazards of nanoparticles.
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 CEINT 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 CEINT 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 CEINT director Mark Wiesner, James L. Meriam Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering. Wiesner specializes in nanoparticle movement and transformation in the environment.
CEINT's 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. CEINT 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 are CEINT collaborators Gordon Brown, a geochemist from Stanford University and Paul Bertsch, a soil scientist from the University of Kentucky.
One activity for the research team over the coming year is to develop 32 tightly controlled and highly instrumented ecosystems 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.
"This mesocosm facility will be the nano-environment equivalent of the space station a unique resource with tremendous potential that will be tapped by researchers throughout the center and beyond," said Wiesner.
The teams' plan to study manufactured, naturally occurring, and incidental nanoparticles recognizes that if data on nanoparticle risk are to be meaningfully interpreted, it is critical to quantify the relative exposures presented by these various sources of nanomaterials. Given that the potential diversity of nanomaterials is staggering, with countless variations in size, shape, surface chemistry, chemical composition, coatings and composites, the team's task is daunting, Wiesner said.
"Such research will address the influence of nanomaterials on processes ranging in scale from the subcellular to whole ecosystems," Wiesner continued. "We hope to explain factors controlling nanomaterial exposure, persistence, bioavailability, toxicity, metabolism, transfer through the food chain, and impacts on population evolution and critical ecosystem functions."
"CEINT will provide an unprecedented opportunity to develop a new technology, in this case nanotechnology, in a sustainable manner with respect to the environment and human health,'' said Lowry, center deputy director and an associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. "Identifying which nanomaterial properties are most environmentally benign enables the development of nanotechnologies with those desirable properties.''
CEINT will also collaborate with the newly formed International Alliance for NanoEHS Harmonization (IANH) , 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.
According to Lowry, another significant goal of the center is to develop the human capital needed for the U.S. to be competitive in the global nanotechnology marketplace.
"CEINT will prepare undergraduate and graduate students for careers in technology, and will use nanotechnology as a platform to promote science, technology, engineering and math to primary and secondary school students,'' he said.
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 CEINT effort. These partners include the Environmental Protection Agency, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, Army Corps of Engineers; and the National Institute of Standards and Technology.
International institutions collaborating with the center 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 called UC-CEIN. These two centers were selected by peer review from among 29 proposals submitted from around the nation.