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Studying potential health and environmental effects of tiny industrial building blocks, called nanoparticles, is the goal of a $389,303 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to Vicki Grassian, director of the University of Iowa Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Institute.
Grassian said that now is the right time to begin assessing potential hazards posed by the particles because industry is increasing production of nanoparticles -- which are thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair -- for use in products ranging from automobile fenders to skin care creams.
"From silver nanoparticle used in socks as an antimicrobial agent to cerium oxide nanoparticle used in the removal of nitrogen oxides from car exhaust to carbon nanotube used to strengthen car doors, nanomaterials in general and nanoparticles in particular are being widely used," Grassian said. "As manufacturing of nanomaterials becomes more commonplace, we can expect that these manufactured materials will get into the environment during production, distribution or use."
In fact, much of the environment may be at risk. For example, nanoparticles have the potential to find their way into rivers, lakes and even drinking water, said Grassian, who is also professor of chemistry in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor of chemical and biochemical engineering in the UI College of Engineering.
In their EPA-funded research, Grassian and her colleagues will conduct fundamental laboratory measurements on the physical and chemical properties of nanoparticles and gather data needed to predict the environmental fate of commercially manufactured nanoparticles. These data, in turn, will be used in models to predict the environmental fate of various nanomaterials.
In time, the UI research results will constitute a valuable contribution to the growing database of information regarding the potential environmental and health implications of nanoscience and nanotechnology.
Grassian, who is also investigating the potential implications and risks of nanoparticles in air, said her interests fall under the broad umbrella of "Sustainable Nanotechnology." Grassian said, "Ultimately, any technology will only be of real value and use to society if the technology is nontoxic or free of a major environmental concern. There is a new awareness of the need to develop technology in a sustainable way, a paradigm promoted by the University of Iowa's Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Institute."
Grassian's colleagues on the EPA-funded project include UI graduate students John Pettibone, Sherrie Elzey and Imali Mudunkotuwa.
Institute funding currently amounts to more than $6 million, including grants totaling $1.2 million from the National Institutes of Health and $1.5 million from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The UI grant is a part of EPA's Science to Achieve Results (STAR) Program. STAR engages the nation's best scientists and engineers in targeted research that complements EPA's intramural research programs and those of EPA's partners in other federal agencies.
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