The nanotech field holds many potential benefits, such as lighter vehicles for better fuel economy, improved environmental remediation and drugs that seek and destroy cancer cells.
But the risks posed on human health and the environment by nanoparticles — which are 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair — are largely unknown.
"There is a need for a coordinated effort to investigate the effects of nanomaterials on the environment, from the nanoscale all the way to the ecosystem response," explained Greg Lowry, director of CEINT research at Carnegie Mellon. "The great variability in the types of materials and protocols used to study their behavior in the environment is leading to inconsistent results and much debate about the potential effects of these materials."
Lowry said the potential for exposure depends highly on the product the nanoparticles are contained in. Most nanomaterials are embedded in a medium or matrix to enhance the performance of a product. For example, silver nanoparticles are embedded in socks or clothing or water filters and food packaging to kill bacteria.
"A fraction of these particles are indeed released when these products are washed," Lowry explained. "Human exposure and negative effects from these silver nanoparticles is likely minimal, but release to the environment and to waste water treatment plans is inevitable."
Nanomaterials embedded in other matrices — such as plastics, batteries, computer hardware, tennis racquets and golf balls, for example — are less likely to escape.
"Human exposure to high concentrations of these materials is unlikely, but they may have effects at very low concentrations, so we need to understand these effects," he said. "Nanomaterials in products such as cosmetics will by design provide exposure to humans."
According to Lowry, the center will work with other researchers at Duke, Howard, Virginia Tech, Stanford and the University of Kentucky to conduct the range of experiments needed to understand the mechanisms of the effects of nanomaterials in the environment, and can do so using a consistent set of materials and protocols in order to be able to compare between experiments and effects.
"A center approach is the only way to accomplish this," Lowry said.
Carnegie Mellon's CEINT seeks to clarify general principles that determine nanoparticle behavior and translate this knowledge into the language of risk assessment.
"With this understanding of how the properties of nanomaterials influence their environmental behavior and effects, we can guide public policy on how best to reap the benefits of nanotechnology without suffering the potential human health and environmental consequences of their inevitable appearance in the biosphere," Lowry said.
In terms of environmental nanotechnology — particularly in terms of applications and implications of nanomaterials in the environment — Lowry said Carnegie Mellon ranks very highly. The university has been working in this arena with several large federal grants from the National Science Foundation, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Defense and Department of Energy.
"Given that this issue requires interdisciplinary teams of researchers, particularly the fusion of engineering and policy, Carnegie Mellon has a tremendous advantage over our competitors."