nanotechnology

Science Wednesday: Big Ideas in Tiny Particles

Each week we write about the science behind environmental protection. Previous Science Wednesdays.
By Phil Sayre
You may have heard of nanotechnology, but then again, maybe you haven’t.  Despite the ubiquity of nanotechnology—it is now widely used in products ranging from clothing (which incorporates bacteria-fighting nano silver) and sunscreen, to nanoengineered batteries, fuel cells and catalytic converters—many people don’t know what it is or why it’s important.

It’s easy to discount the impacts of nanotechnology because we don’t see nanoparticles.  They are really small.  In fact, a nanometer is a mere one billionth of a meter.  If that doesn’t give you a visual, here are some examples of what I mean:
•    A sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick
•    There are 25,400,000 nanometers in one inch
•    A human hair is approximately 80,000 nanometers wide.

Despite their diminutive nature, nanomaterials have global impact.  Research funds for nanotechnology have steadily increased over the past decade to over $10 Billion USD per year worldwide!

The U.S. government’s efforts to assess the potential risks of nanotechnology are coordinated by the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a collaborative project comprised of 25 agencies, including the US Environmental Protection Agency, National Science Foundation, National Institute of Environment and Health Sciences, National Institute of Health, and others. The NNI is also cooperating with the European Commission to conduct environmental, health and safety research (for more, see: http://us-eu.org).
The big question about nanotechnology is not whether we can benefit from the technology, but whether we can ensure the technology is as safe as possible.

Over the next three years, the EPA will be working to design a number of new tools that will make it much easier for manufacturers and consumers to recognize the safety or danger of certain nanomaterials.  We also plan to provide solutions and alternatives to the way nanomaterials are produced in order to make their production greener in the near future.
As we collect more data on nanoparticles, we can better understand how to use nanotechnology in sustainable, healthy ways.  Nanomaterials are excellent tools for efficiency and sustainability, and every year we become more and more adept at using those tools to make our world a better place.

Attending the Society of Toxicology Conference in San Francisco this week?  Be sure to attend the Nano Workshop on March 13 (2:45pm – 3:45pm) that will summarize U.S and E.U. Nanotechnology research programs.

About the author: Phil Sayre is the Deputy National Program Director for the Chemical Safety for Sustainability Research Program.

Editors 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.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here 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.

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Science Wednesday: You Say You Want A Revolution

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

You say you want a revolution,” said the Beatles. Well, we have one—a scientific revolution.

Nanotechnology is a scientific revolution of the sort described by Thomas Kuhn. In Kuhn’s description, science moves along with a certain set of beliefs until anomalies occur that don’t fit in with these beliefs. As the anomalies become more evident and common, somebody or some group forms a new and totally different theory that explains what’s going on–and shifts the whole direction of science. Hence, a scientific revolution occurs, and science moves forward on this new basis.

For example, 17th Century scientists were doing their “normal science” developing equations that explained how the sun rotated around the earth. These equations got more and more complicated trying to explain what was happening. Then, Galileo came along and said the earth rotated around the sun. This shifted the current geocentric paradigm and caused a scientific revolution in astronomy.

Unfortunately, Galileo was punished by the Inquisition for his “heresy,” but science marched on.

Before being able to work at the nanoscale, we thought that you could slice and dice materials to their smallest size, and they would still retain their properties—like color, magnetism, conductivity, melting point, etc. However, an anomaly occurred at the nanoscale. Materials were changing properties in a particular very small size scale—the nanometer scale.

For example, if you take a piece of gold jewelry, it is colored gold. You would expect that by chopping it up really, really small, its color would remain gold. That is not the case, however. If a particle of gold is 10 nanometers across, it is red. You also would not expect your gold ring to be reactive; yet, at a 2-3 nm size range, gold is a good catalyst.

All this is very exciting to scientists and engineers. Maybe we could “tune” properties to get the color we want or the reactivity we want. However, as scientists and engineers at EPA, we must make sure that the environment and human health are protected while making use of these really cool materials.

To carry out this mission, I support research in both applications of nanotechnology for helping the environment and implications of nanotechnology that may cause harmful effects. Some of the research results can be found at http://epa.gov/ncer/nano/.

About the Author: Dr. Barbara Karn is a scientist in EPA’s National Center for Environmental Research where she works in nanotechnology.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here 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.

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Sheep, Goats, and Nanoparticles

I was a child when introduced to the phrase, “separating the sheep from the goats.” Although the saying has biblical roots, I typically heard it in reference to distinguishing between good and bad, or between high and low value. Recently, I’ve been thinking about it with respect to nanotechnology.

Earlier this year I participated in a public event, and we were asked: “Are nanomaterials safe?” This reasonable question comes up often, sometimes in the negative form, “Are nanomaterials dangerous?” I have begun prefacing my response by asking that we reframe the question.

This is where sheep and goats come in.

Nanoparticles taken as a large group actually seem to be a mixed collection of at least these two ruminants. We could also add cattle, bison, and the odd yak. Many particles are likely to be sheep—beneficial, benign, and obedient to our calls to form an orderly herd. Others are cattle, mostly docile except for the occasional bull who rages when provoked. The bison are the naturally produced nanoparticles, untamed but in harmony with nature. The yaks are particles like dendrimers: hairy and a bit exotic, but valuable to those who know how to use them.

Then there are the goats: particles whose particular characteristics may spell trouble for people or wildlife if not kept under control. Goats can be tamed and very useful. (I’m a big fan of goat cheese.) Yet goats, being goats, are prone to mischief. When I was a kid, I had a Nubian goat as a pet and he was a prankster, sneaking up behind me and gently butting my backside.

The reframed question, then, is not whether nanomaterials in general are safe or dangerous but rather, how we identify the goats and either keep their bad behavior in check or ban them from the barnyard altogether.

To do that, we need to learn what makes a particular nanoparticle troublesome—a goat. Do particles that look like fibers become a problem if they are long, and therefore perhaps more difficult to remove from the lung if inhaled? Are very small particles more likely than larger ones to go places we don’t want them to go (such as into cells) or will they clump together and not get very far?

These are the kinds of questions EPA’s Nanotechnology Research Program is working to address.

Not all of us grew up on farms, but we all know the importance of separating the sheep from the goats.

About the author: Jeff Morris is National Program Director for Nanotechnology in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here 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.

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Science Wednesday: Lisa Jackson, Eco-Warrior!

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

How great it would be to be on the cover of the Rolling Stone! (…or would it be Spin now?) Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show aspired to this position in their famous song of 1972, written by Shel Silverstein. Well, getting an article about you in Rolling Stone is almost as good. So I was thrilled to read the current issue of Rolling Stone (Feb. 4, 2010) which has an article on our “Eco-Warrior” administrator, Lisa Jackson. Reporter Tim Dickinson says, “Taken together, Jackson’s efforts represent a sweeping attempt to revitalize an agency…The goal, as she (Administrator Jackson) sees it, is to once again base environmental regulations on science and the law…”

Sustainability is often described as a three-legged stool, with one leg each for the environment, the economy, and society. I think that the legs are not even, and the major support comes from the environment. Without the natural capital provided by our environment, we’d have no society or economy. Convincing evidence for the importance of the natural environment came from the Biosphere 2 project.

In the early 1990’s, a huge structure was built in the Arizona desert. Over 3 enclosed acres housed a variety of ecosystems with manmade recycling systems designed to imitate earth’s natural systems. The project, however, could not independently sustain humans or the other organisms inside. There were problems with oxygen and food, and outside electricity had to be used. Because of Biosphere 2, we learned that people don’t have the ability to design a self-sustaining ecosystem for human life. If we lose our natural ecosystem by failing in environmental protection, in the words of Dr. Gro Brundlant, chair of the first World Commission on Environment and Development, there will be no sanctuary. EPA’s mission, protecting the environment and human health, is key to our sustainability and survivability.

At EPA we rely on science and our intelligent leaders like Lisa Jackson to carry out this mission. Rolling Stone has duly recognized her, and I am very proud. Maybe next year she will make the cover!

About the Author: EPA Environmental scientist Dr. Barbara Karn focuses on “green” nanotechnologies, including using green chemistry, green engineering and environmentally benign manufacturing to make new nanomaterials and products for preventing pollution.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here 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.

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Science Wednesday: Small Science to Help the Planet

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

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be a scientist. At first, the only scientist I knew of was Albert Einstein, but I had no aspirations of growing up looking like him. Then I discovered a “Space Cadet” television character who was a physicist—and a woman. It was cool. Finally a role model I could follow!

What I liked about science was doing experiments and learning things that nobody else knew. I thought it would be great to learn science and help the planet at the same time.
Now I have the privilege of working for EPA where our mission—to protect the environment and human health—is based on scientific knowledge. The scientific knowledge that I use in promoting EPA’s mission is nanotechnology.

According to the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a coalition of U.S. government agencies that fund or use nanotechnology research, nanotechnology encompasses materials with dimensions between one and 100 nanometers (no small molecules need apply) and have unique properties that enable novel applications. (My colleague Nora Savage did a great job explaining nanotechnology on a previous Science Wednesday post.

Two scientists received the 2007 Nobel Prize in physics for making a nano-sized discovery: giant magnetoresistance, or GMR. GMR is a property some metals have at the nanoscale, and it was used to develop smaller computer hard drives with more storage than before. Some of these are now found in our cell phones and MP3 players.

GMR is just one example of the many types of nanomaterials that have the potential to lead to exciting new products. But could some nanomaterials also be harmful to the environment?
That’s where I come in. I work on a grant program I developed supporting research focused on nanotechnology and the environment. I may not be a Space Cadet, but I am a scientist who helps the world. It’s kind of like a dream come true.

About the Author: EPA Environmental scientist Dr. Barbara Karn focuses on “green” nanotechnologies, including using green chemistry, green engineering and environmentally benign manufacturing to make new nanomaterials and products for preventing pollution. Look for more about her work and her dream job in future Science Wednesday posts.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here 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.

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

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 here 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.

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Science Wednesday: Science, the Environment & Nanotechnology

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

About the author: Nora Savage is an environmental engineer with EPA’s Office of Research and Development. Her focus areas include nanotechnology, pollution prevention, and life cycle approaches for emerging technologies.

I became interested in science after learning about the scientific method: observe, develop a hypothesis, and test—if it holds you have a theory! If not, alter the hypothesis and try again. I used this process when I was a kid to discover that addressing an envelope backwards would get my letter delivered without a stamp. Woodsy Owl (‘Give a hoot, don’t pollute’) showed me the importance of protecting the environment and reducing pollution. The EPA merged these two interests with nanotechnology and a career was born!

Photo of five testubes, each glowing a different bright color.Nanocrystals can have different colors depending on their size. Photo courtesy of Argonne National Laboratory.

Nanotechnology is the ability to measure, observe and control at the atomic and sub-atomic level, where new material properties arise that are unlike those of the same material at a larger size. Take gold, for example. The kind used in jewelry is yellow, not very reactive, and melts at 1200°C. At about three nanometers gold is red, very reactive, and melts at 200°C.

How is this related to the environment? First, nanotechnologies can help protect the environment. New nano-compounds and engineered nano-materials can quickly and inexpensively detect and remove pollutants, even very small amounts located in difficult-to-access areas. Utilizing nanotechnology can lead to more efficient manufacturing processes, cutting down on toxic materials used.

We are also aware of the potential for unintended consequences. For example, our use of certain chlorinated compounds to improve aerosol dispersions harmed the ozone layer.

My job is to help tap the potential benefits of nanotechnology while developing a better understanding of the potential trouble they might also bring, and consequently eliminating or minimizing it.

How? By looking at the “life cycles” of new materials and products. By that I mean considering the product from a holistic perspective, including the acquisition of raw material, its manufacture, its use, and eventually its disposal or recycling. My goal is to advance the science that helps determine the exposure potential at each stage, assessing potential hazards, and developing ways to eliminate or reduce them.

Nano Sites:
National Nanotechnology Initiative
The Adventures of Nano

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here 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.

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