UK Investigates Environmental Impact of Nanoparticles
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Why are people in the computing, cosmetic and medical industries clamoring to use nanoparticles? There are a million reasons. Nanoparticles, a million times smaller than the head of a pin, have unusual properties compared to larger objects made from the same materials. Take nano-sized zinc oxide particles. They have superior UV blocking properties compared to their large-scale equivalents in traditional sunscreens.

But what will nanoparticles manipulated by man do to the environment?

The UK College of Agriculture’s Paul Bertsch, Jason Unrine and Olga Tsyusko will work with researchers from across the country through the new national Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology at Duke University to answer this question. In 2008, the NSF and EPA awarded $14.4 million to create this center.

“Understanding how nanomaterials move through the environment, how they are transformed in soils and how they interact with organisms is essential to developing an understanding of the ecological and human health risks associated with their widespread use,” says soil scientist Bertsch.

“The nanotechnology revolution will change all aspects of our life and transform the global economy. It is critical that risks to the environment and human health be understood and properly managed so that this promise is realized. This is the ultimate goal of the center, and we are pleased to be part of this outstanding interdisciplinary team of scientists.”

During the coming year, 32 tightly controlled ecosystems will be developed in the Duke Forest in Durham, North Carolina. 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.

Can Nanoparticles Hurt Us?

Do nanotubes, tiny but mighty particles used to produce materials far lighter but stronger than steel, pose any health risk? Nobody knows, but over the past decade more and more scientists have wondered whether the needle-shaped nanotubes might cause the same kind of disease as similar-shaped asbestos fibers, which were found to cause lung disease.

Backed by a $2 million, four-year EPA grant, a team of UK researchers is investigating how the sizes and shapes of nanoparticles affect their ability to enter the brain. This is the largest EPA Science to Achieve Results (STAR) grant ever awarded to the University of Kentucky, as well as the largest single grant ever awarded by EPA for nanotechnology research.

The project will be headed up by Robert Yokel, a professor in the College of Pharmacy, whose team includes scientists from UK’s Center for Applied Energy Research, chemistry, engineering and the department of anatomical sciences at the University of Louisville’s School of Medicine. This group will study the potential health impacts of nano-sized cerium oxide, a material used as a diesel fuel additive in Europe. Cerium oxide is reputed to improve fuel efficiency, suppress soot from exhaust and reduce the concentration of other ultra-fine particles in air that have known health effects.

“I applaud Dr. Yokel and his research team for earning such a prestigious award,” says UK President Lee T. Todd Jr. “This award is a perfect example of why it is so important that Kentucky has a world-class research university, as it shows that the leading faculty and researchers that we have been able to recruit and retain here at UK are among the best in the world.”

photo of Burt Davis with FT reactors