Engineered nanoparticles can be comprised of several materials or they may have protective coatings. In energy production, for example, coatings prevent nanoparticles from clumping together and hindering reactions; whereas in biomedical applications, the coatings bind with specific proteins. These coatings become an integral part of the particle. But what happens when the coatings degrade? If waste water containing silver nanoparticles is rinsed down the drain, what happens when the particles enter the sewer?
Understanding the complex relationships between nanomaterials and environmental and human health risks is the goal of CEINT@Carnegie Mellon—the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology. In this center, researchers study the fate of and transport of nanoparticles and their toxicity in the environment. Greg Lowry, CEINT's director and a professor in Civil and Environmental Engineering, works with colleagues throughout CIT, examining factors that alter the behavior and chemistry of nanoparticles. The manner in which these particles move through or aggregate in different environments, say water as opposed to soil, generates environmental questions. Do the particles pose risks to our health? What will happen when plants and animals take up these particles? Can we determine which nanoparticles will become harmful so we can avoid problems in the future? These are the questions that CEINT explores.
Training engineers to remain cognizant of the impacts of engineered nanomaterials is critical. Water-quality expert Jeanne VanBriesen is leading a doctoral program focusing on the technological and policy implications of nanotechnology.