Small Matters

November 30, 2008
Chainlink: electron micrograph of cobalt nanoparticles.

Chainlink: electron micrograph of cobalt nanoparticles. G. Cheng, A.R. Hight Walker / NIST

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 properties make nanomaterials attractive for use in everything from computer hard drives to sunscreens, cosmetics, and medical technologies. However, the environmental implications of using these materials are virtually unknown.

A new center based at Duke will bring together researchers from a wide variety of fields and institutions, including universities and government agencies, to explore the potential ecological hazards of nanoparticles. The Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT), funded by a $14.4 million grant from the National Science Foundation and the Environmental Protection Agency, will seek to understand the relationships among a vast array of nanomaterials, natural and manmade, and their potential biological effects and ecological consequences.

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. The team, directed by Mark Wiesner, James L. Meriam Professor of civil and environmental engineering at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering, also includes Rich Di Giulio, a professor of environmental toxicology.

Over the next year, the researchers will develop thirty-two controlled ecosystems in Duke Forest. They will add nanoparticles to these test sites—living laboratories known as mesocosms—and 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," Wiesner says, "a unique resource with tremendous potential that will be tapped by researchers throughout the center and beyond."