Nanotech impacts examined

U scientists team up with 11 universities and a national lab to test nanomaterials.

Eliana Schreiber

A multimillion-dollar grant will allow researchers from the University of Minnesota and other institutions to design and test nanotechnology to understand how it impacts the environment.
 
University of Minnesota officials announced earlier this month that the National Science Foundation awarded a $20 million grant to the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, a collaborative research center that includes the University and is based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
 
Nanotechnology requires researchers to work with extremely small materials, some the size of individual atoms and molecules. Nanomaterials are used in equipment like solar cells and batteries in electric cars.
 
Christy Haynes, CSN associate director and University of Minnesota chemistry professor, said the project aims to prevent environmental problems before they happen.
 
Haynes said she will be testing bacterial cells on her own to see what happens when they are exposed to nanoparticles of different kinds.
 
The team as a whole will take models of cells and look at how they change after they’ve been introduced to nanoparticles, said Miriam Krause, the CSN’s director of education and professional development.
 
If team members see changes, they will look into which characteristics of the nanomaterials caused the change and figure out how to redesign them, Haynes said.
 
“The ultimate goal, over five or 10 years, is to be able to understand what’s happening when nanoparticles interact with those organisms and then to design new nanoparticles that we know are going to be benign or not have any harmful effects,” she said.
 
She also said nanoparticles in electric car batteries could have environmental impacts.
 
The next generation of electric cars will have batteries made of nanoparticles, Haynes said, so the CSN will examine what happens when a battery is discarded and how the nanomaterials it’s made of would contribute to electronic waste and landfills.
 
Nanoparticles are already being used in many different technologies, Krause said, but scientists don’t know enough about the aftermath when the materials become waste.
 
“How do you design nickel manganese cobalt so it has the properties it needs without destroying the environment?” Haynes said.
 
The biggest challenge in the study is that the particles are so tiny that it is difficult to work with them, Haynes said.
 
“In a lot of cases, there aren’t good enough measurement tools to even characterize what we need to,” she said.
 
Erin Carlson, CSN member and University of Minnesota associate professor in chemistry, said the most interesting part of the research is figuring out how researchers can manipulate chemicals to make them less toxic for the environment.
 
“We have the opportunity, working as a center, to actually develop rules and ways of thinking about material design that will help us avoid huge environmental contaminations in the future,” she said.