A new study has begun to explore the effects that nanotechnology might have on the environment.
Researchers at MU received a $399,506 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to look at how nanomaterials might affect aquatic organisms.
Nanomaterials are extremely small atomic particles, generally between one to 100 nanometers long. There are a billion nanometers in one meter.
The study is being done in conjunction with the USGS Environmental Research Center located on New Haven Road.
Supporters of nanotechnology claim it will produce tremendous benefits such as curing cancer and cheaply desalinating seawater. Last year the federal budget dedicated more than a billion dollars to the research and development of nanotechnology.
The National Nanotechnology Initiative, a federal research and development organization, lists hundreds of current and potential uses of nanomaterials in fields including electronics and medicine.
Because so little is known about nanomaterials, part of the federal money is allocated to test potentially adverse effects they might have on the environment.
“On one side you have potential applications, but on the other we really don’t know much on the potential health and environmental impacts,” said Baolin Deng, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at MU and the lead researcher for the study.
The EPA has given out various grants to determine if any negative aspects of using nanomaterials exist.
“You need to do this kind of research with a team in order to answer all the questions,” Deng said.
The study will concentrate on the impact, or the “fate and effect,” that nanomaterials will have when released into the environment, said Chris Ingersoll, an aquatic toxicologist with the USGS working on the study. This includes asking questions such as how the materials will be transported into the environment, what organisms they will affect and how they will be affected.
Early research has found that nanomaterials settle down to the sediment at the bottom of bodies of water as opposed to staying suspended in the water. As a result, organisms that live in sediment, such as amphopods (small shrimp-like organisms), mussels and worms, are more susceptible to toxic materials in sediment and have been chosen for the study, Ingersoll said.
After being exposed to nanomaterials for various periods of time, the animals will be tested to see if the material had any impact on their survival, growth or reproduction. Effects from nanomaterial in the environment would not only be limited to organisms living in the sediment, but also the animals that feed on them, such as fish, affecting a much larger part of the food chain.
The study will continue for three years, and any findings will be used to advise the EPA on policy regarding nanomaterials, Ingersoll said.