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Seeking environmental guidelines for the next revolution

Aquatic toxicologist Chris Ingersoll is working with Mizzou Engineering to determine if and how carbon-based nanomaterials harm aquatic animals living in stream sediment. Here, Ingersoll, of the U.S. Geological Survey, studies mussels exposed to nanomaterials in sediment. Photo by Vicki Hodder

As the nanotechnology revolution builds, Mizzou Engineering and federal researchers are joining forces to try to identify some guidelines for safely assimilating the tiny particles that fuel the technology into the environment.

Baolin Deng, a civil and environmental engineering associate professor, and Hao Li, a mechanical and aerospace engineering assistant professor, are part of a team that has received a $399,506 Environmental Protection Agency grant to research how carbon–based nanoparticles affect aquatic life. Working with the U.S. Geological Survey, they will try to determine if the heavy metals used to make the nanomaterials or the small particles alone are toxic to aquatic life—and if so, at what levels.

“What we want to be able to do is identify the sort of nanomaterials that either do or don’t cause a problem for fish or other aquatic animals if released into a stream or into a lake,” said Chris Ingersoll, a U.S. Geological Survey aquatic toxicologist working with Mizzou on the research.

The three–year project is slated to run through 2010.

Carbon–based nanomaterials are under particular scrutiny because they can be forged into particles many times stronger than steel and are good conductors of electricity, making them potential building blocks for next–generation electronics. Researchers foresee their use in airplanes, computers, medical devices and as components in all sorts of everyday materials.

The potential for such widespread use is prompting the Mizzou research team to focus on how those nanoparticles may affect aquatic animals—such as mussels, worms and shrimp–like creatures called amphipods—that live in stream sediment. If carbon–based nanomaterials are used in manufacturing or for construction, the nanoparticles may well leach into the surrounding soil and water, Deng said.

Preliminary studies have shown that nanoparticles can damage aquatic life. MU’s Deng hopes to determine not only whether that finding holds true for animals that live in sediment but also exactly what characteristic might be causing such damage.

From there, the Mizzou researchers hope to establish some parameters for the environmentally safe use of carbon–based nanomaterials.

“People now are beginning to think about large–scale applications of this material,” Deng said. “We do need to know the impact it will have—on human health and the environment.”