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Science Wednesday: Nanotechnology and the Environment-A 46,000-step Program

2009 October 21

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.

Nearly a decade ago when I was approaching my 40th birthday, I decided to confront mid-life crisis by taking up long-distance running. Specifically, I set my sights on running a marathon. Before making this decision, I had never run more than three or four miles. So 26.2 was an intimidating prospect. I run in about one-yard strides, so a quick calculation told me that it would take me 46,112 of those choppy strides to cross the finish line.

It seemed overwhelming.

But on Thanksgiving day, 1999, I began with a three-mile run, a week later extended it to four miles, and so on until – one year later – I finished my first marathon. I’ve since run four more. It was all about building up endurance, one stride at a time.

This idea of one-step-at-a-time progression is pretty much the same when it comes to trying to understand the possible environmental impacts of nano-sized particles—tiny manufactured particles that are 100 nanometers or smaller. (A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter, or about 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair.) You start with a little bit of knowledge – say, for example – that you know the size and shape of the particle – and build on that to understand whether the size and shape of the particle at the nanoscale makes the particle behave any differently than a larger-sized particle of the same material.

Let’s take, for example, silver, even though I will never win a medal of that color (and surely not gold and, sigh, not even bronze) in any of my marathons. Nano-sized versions of silver are being made for use in clothing, medical equipment, and other things because it is very good at killing bacteria.

Some of our first steps in the nanosilver marathon are to understand if nanosilver behaves differently than larger-sized silver (which we already know quite a bit about). Then we build on that to learn if any differences we find make nanosilver more (or less) toxic than larger silver. And we keep going from there, pushing the limits of our understanding to learn still more.

image of author standing in front of mountainsBe sure to keep an eye on Science Wednesday next month for training tips and things we’re picking up along the nanotechnology course. To learn more about how Jeff Morris is taking the long view of tiny particles, visit EPA’s Nanotechnology Research web site.

About the author: When he’s not running marathons or training for one, Jeff Morris is National Program Director for Nanotechnology in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

13 Responses leave one →
  1. Jackenson Durand permalink
    October 21, 2009

    I like Nanotechnology the fact that is contribute on all new generations of science and technology, in medicine especially.
    I think understand Nanotechnology would allow a better understanding biodiversities evolution even the Universe creation. That is wonderful! Thanks Science.
    Let’s start building Atoms green.

  2. Johnny R. permalink
    October 21, 2009

    Of course you emphasize the positive aspects of nanotechnology, but inevitably, there is a negative side and it is profoundly dangerous to the integrity of physical life — like nanotech robots that look and act exactly like human beings and are programmed to replace us. Science fiction? All the technology in Star Trek is being invented. That’s why the show folded, because so much of its fictional technology is no longer fictional.

  3. Kristen Kulinowski permalink
    October 21, 2009

    Not only do we need to compare nano-silver to its larger analogue but to the smaller analogue, namely silver ions, as well.

  4. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    October 22, 2009

    This nanotechnology does have some dangers and potential dangers involved with it. One is it is so small that it would be easy for it to begin contaminating drinking water. California EPA is looking at this and its impact on drinking water quality now with the idea of regulations on nanotechnology to keep it from polluting the water. It may also have a negative impact on air quality although that part is not being looked at right now I don’t thing. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  5. Alan Gregory permalink
    October 22, 2009

    Congrats on being a marathoner. One of our favorite natural history writers of all time is Bernd Heinrich, a champion ultra-marathoner and retired biology professor at the University of Vermont.. I was a 10-K runner while assigned to Air Force bases in Georgia, Oklahoma and South Korea in the 0s and still admire the framed photos that were taken of myself during the running of races in Oklahoma City. I remain a long-distance walker and hiker today.

  6. Jeff Morris permalink
    November 11, 2009

    Indeed. The discussion at the recent FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel meeting on nano silver was very instructive on this point.

  7. Jeff Morris permalink
    November 11, 2009

    Thanks very much for your comment. Please see our web site, epa.gov/nanoscience, for information on our EPA research program to understand the possible environmental impacts of manufactured nanomaterials.

  8. Jeff Morris permalink
    November 11, 2009

    Thanks for your comment. Actually, I was trying to emphasize that we need to understand both the possible environmental impacts as well as the benefits of nanotechnology. I invite you to take a look at our web site, epa.gov/nanoscience, which describes our research program to understand and address any such impacts.

    Best regards,

    Jeff

  9. Jeff Morris permalink
    November 11, 2009

    I completely agree. At the recent FIFRA Scientific Advisory Panel on nano silver, there was a good deal of discussion both on whether we have adequate data on silver ions as well as whether nano silver particles present exposure and effects scenarios different from what we understand from what data we do have on silver ions. It would seem that much comparative research needs to be done, not just for silver but as well for other materials.

  10. Jeff Morris permalink
    November 11, 2009

    Yes, “green nanotechnology” is an important aspect of our, and others’, research on the potential environmental impacts of nanotechnology.

  11. Jeff Morris permalink
    November 11, 2009

    Great to hear from a fellow runner. As I write this reply, it’s raining pretty hard but I’m still getting the urge to lace up my shoes and put in 10K.

  12. Steven Scheeler permalink
    April 30, 2010

    One of the best pledges I have made to help keep plastic out of the landfills was to separate my goals in to two parts. The first was to get a license to using nanotechnology and Diamon Fusion to make windshields with stand rocks up to 10x their weight or force to chip an existing windshield. The second will cost me about 2-3 million which will have to wait. I will use a machine called an Andela windshield stripper. It strips the plastic from the 2 pieces of glass. The glass can then be reused in to other materials ,like tile counter top, block walls carpet backing and sand blasting.

  13. how to buy silver permalink
    August 6, 2011

    Great article Well post I like your Mind….

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