Tag Archives: University of Kentucky

NanoFARM: food, agriculture, and nanoparticles

The research focus for the NanoFARM consortium is on pesticides according to an October 19, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

The answer to the growing, worldwide food production problem may have a tiny solution—nanoparticles, which are being explored as both fertilizers and fungicides for crops.

NanoFARM – research consortium formed between Carnegie Mellon University [US], the University of Kentucky [US], the University of Vienna [Austria], and Aveiro University in Prague [Czech Republic] – is studying the effects of nanoparticles on agriculture. The four universities received grants from their countries’ respective National Science Foundations to discover how these tiny particles – some just 4 nanometers in diameter – can revolutionize how farmers grow their food.

An October ??, 2017 Carnegie Mellon University news release by Adam Dove, which originated the news item, fills in a few more details,

“What we’re doing is getting a fundamental understanding of nanoparticle-to-plant interactions to enable future applications,” says Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) Professor Greg Lowry, the principal investigator for the nanoFARM project. “With pesticides, less than 5% goes into the crop—the rest just goes into the environment and does harmful things. What we’re trying to do is minimize that waste and corresponding environmental damage by doing a better job of targeting the delivery.”

The teams are looking at related questions: How much nanomaterial is needed to help crops when it comes to driving away pests and delivering nutrients, and how much could potentially hurt plants or surrounding ecosystems?

Applied pesticides and fertilizers are vulnerable to washing away—especially if there’s a rainstorm soon after application. But nanoparticles are not so easily washed off, making them extremely efficient for delivering micronutrients like zinc or copper to crops.

“If you put in zinc oxide nanoparticles instead, it might take days or weeks to dissolve, providing a slow, long-term delivery system.”

Gao researches the rate at which nanoparticles dissolve. His most recent finding is that nanoparticles of copper oxide take up to 20-30 days to dissolve in soil, meaning that they can deliver nutrients to plants at a steady rate over that time period.

“In many developing countries, a huge number of people are starving,” says Gao. “This kind of technology can help provide food and save energy.”

But Gao’s research is only one piece of the NanoFARM puzzle. Lowry recently traveled to Australia with Ph.D. student Eleanor Spielman-Sun to explore how differently charged nanoparticles were absorbed into wheat plants.

They learned that negatively charged particles were able to move into the veins of a plant—making them a good fit for a farmer who wanted to apply a fungicide. Neutrally charged particles went into the tissue of the leaves, which would be beneficial for growers who wanted to fortify a food with nutritional value.

Lowry said they are still a long way from signing off on a finished product for all crops—right now they are concentrating on tomato and wheat plants. But with the help of their university partners, they are slowly creating new nano-enabled agrochemicals for more efficient and environmentally friendly agriculture.

For more information, you can find the NanoFARM website here.

Burning coal produces harmful titanium dioxide nanoparticles

It turns out that Canada has the fifth largest reserve of coal in the world, according to the Coal in Canada Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

Coal reserves in Canada rank fifth largest in the world (following the former Soviet Union, the United States, the People’s Republic of China and Australia) at approximately 10 billion tons, 10% of the world total.[1] This represents more energy than all of the oil and gas in the country combined. The coal industry generates CDN$5 billion annually.[2] Most of Canada’s coal mining occurs in the West of the country.[3] British Columbia operates 10 coal mines, Alberta 9, Saskatchewan 3 and New Brunswick one. Nova Scotia operates several small-scale mines, Westray having closed following the 1992 disaster there.[4]

So, this news from Virginia holds more than the usual interest for me (I’m in British Columbia). From an Aug. 8, 2017 Virginia Tech news release (also on EurekAlert),

Environmental scientists led by the Virginia Tech College of Science have discovered that the burning of coal produces incredibly small particles of a highly unusual form of titanium oxide.

When inhaled, these nanoparticles can enter the lungs and potentially the bloodstream.

The particulates — known as titanium suboxide nanoparticles — are unintentionally produced as coal is burned, creating these tiniest of particles, as small as 100 millionths of a meter [emphasis mine], said the Virginia Tech-led team. When the particles are introduced into the air — unless captured by high-tech particle traps — they can float away from power plant stacks and travel on air currents locally, regionally, and even globally.

As an example of this, these nanoparticles were found on city streets, sidewalks, and in standing water in Shanghai, China.

The findings are published in the latest issue of Nature Communications under team leader Michael F. Hochella Jr., University Distinguished Professor of Geosciences with the College of Science, and Yi Yang, a professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Other study participants include Duke University, the University of Kentucky, and Laurentian University in Canada.

“The problem with these nanoparticles is that there is no easy or practical way to prevent their formation during coal burning,” Hochella said, adding that in nations with strong environmental regulations, such as the United States, most of the nanoparticles would be caught by particle traps. Not so in Africa [a continent not a nation], China, or India, where regulations are lax or nonexistent, with coal ash and smoke entering the open air.

“Due to advanced technology used at U.S.-based coal burning power plants, mandated by the Clean Air Act and the Environmental Protection Agency, most of these nanoparticles and other tiny particles are removed before the final emission of the plant’s exhaust gases,” Hochella said. “But in countries where the particles from the coal burning are not nearly so efficiently removed, or removed at all, these titanium suboxide nanoparticles and many other particle types are emitted into the atmosphere, in part resulting in hazy skies that plague many countries, especially in China and India.”

Hochella and his team found these previously unknown nanoparticles not only in coal ash from around the world and in the gaseous waste emissions of coal plants, but on city streets, in soils and storm water ponds, and at wastewater treatment plants.

“I could not believe what I have found at the beginning, because they had been reported so extremely rarely in the natural environment,” said Yang, who once worked as a visiting professor in Virginia Tech’s Department of Geosciences with Hochella. “It took me several months to confirm their occurrence in coal ash samples.”

The newly found titanium suboxide — called Magnéli phases — was once thought rare, found only sparingly on Earth in some meteorites, from a small area of rock formations in western Greenland, and occasionally in moon rocks. The findings by Hochella and his team indicate that these nanoparticles are in fact widespread globally. They are only now being studied for the first time in natural environments using powerful electron microscopes.

Why did the discovery occur now? According to the report, nearly all coal contains traces of the minerals rutile and/or anatase, both “normal,” naturally occurring, and relatively inert titanium oxides, especially in the absence of light. When those minerals are burned in the presence of coal, research found they easily and quickly converted to these unusual titanium suboxide nanoparticles. The nanoparticles then become entrained in the gases that leave the power plant.

When inhaled, the nanoparticles enter deep into the lungs, potentially all the way into the air sacs that move oxygen into our bloodstream during the normal breathing process. While human lung toxicity of these particles is not yet known, a preliminary biotoxicity test by Hochella and Richard Di Giulio, professor of environmental toxicology, and Jessica Brandt, a doctoral candidate, both at Duke University, indicates that the particles do indeed have toxicity potential.

According to the team, further study is clearly needed, especially biotoxicity testing directly relevant to the human lung. Partnering with coal-power plants either in the United States or China would be ideal, said Yang.

More troubling, the study shows that titanium suboxide nanoparticles are biologically active in the dark, making the particles highly suspect. Exact human health effects are yet unknown.

“Future studies will need to very carefully investigate and access the toxicity of titanium suboxide nanoparticles in the human lung, and this could take years, a sobering thought considering its potential danger,” Hochella said.

As the titanium suboxide nanoparticle itself is produced incidentally, Hochella and his team came across the nanoparticle by accident while studying a 2014 coal ash spill in the Dan River, North Carolina. During the study of the downstream movement of toxic metals in the ash in the Dan River, the team discovered and recognized the presence of small amounts of the highly unusual titanium suboxide.

The group later produced the titanium suboxide nanoparticles when burning coal in a lab simulation.

This new potential air pollution health hazard builds on already established findings from the World Health Organization. It estimates that 3.3 million premature deaths occur worldwide per year due to polluted air, Hochella said. In China, 1.6 million premature deaths are estimated annually due to cardiovascular and respiratory injury from air pollution. Most Chinese megacities top 100 severely hazy days each year with particle concentrations two to four times higher than WHO guidelines, Yang said.

Direct health effects on humans is only one factor. Findings of thousands of scientists have determined that the biggest driver of warming of the planet and the resulting climate change is industrial-scale coal burning. The impact of titanium suboxide nanoparticles found in the atmosphere, in addition to greenhouse gases, on animals, water, and plants is not yet known.

They’ve used an unusual unit of measurement, “100 millionths of a meter,” nanoparticles are usually described in nanometers.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Discovery and ramifications of incidental Magnéli phase generation and release from industrial coal-burning by Yi Yang, Bo Chen, James Hower, Michael Schindler, Christopher Winkler, Jessica Brandt, Richard Di Giulio, Jianping Ge, Min Liu, Yuhao Fu, Lijun Zhang, Yuru Chen, Shashank Priya, & Michael F. Hochella Jr. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 194 (2017) doi:10.1038/s41467-017-00276-2 Published online: 08 August 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

This put me in mind of the famous London smog, which one doesn’t hear about much anymore. For anyone not familiar with that phenomenon, here’s more from the Great Smog of London Wikipedia entry (Note: Links have been removed),

The Great Smog of London, or Great Smog of 1952 sometimes called the Big Smoke,[1] was a severe air-pollution event [emphasis mine] that affected the British capital of London in December 1952. A period of cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants – mostly arising from the use of coal [emphasis mine]– to form a thick layer of smog over the city. It lasted from Friday, 5 December to Tuesday, 9 December 1952 and then dispersed quickly when the weather changed.

It caused major disruption by reducing visibility and even penetrating indoor areas, far more severe than previous smog events experienced in the past, called “pea-soupers”. Government medical reports in the following weeks, however, estimated that up until 8 December, 4,000 people had died as a direct result of the smog and 100,000 more were made ill by the smog’s effects on the human respiratory tract. More recent research suggests that the total number of fatalities was considerably greater, about 12,000.[2]

London had suffered since the 1200s from poor air quality,[3] which worsened in the 1600s,[4][5] but the Great Smog is known to be the worst air-pollution event in the history of the United Kingdom,[6] and the most significant in terms of its effect on environmental research, government regulation, and public awareness of the relationship between air quality and health.[2][4] It led to several changes in practices and regulations, including the Clean Air Act 1956. …

Investigating nanoparticles and their environmental impact for industry?

It seems the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT) at Duke University (North Carolina, US) is making an adjustment to its focus and opening the door to industry, as well as, government research. It has for some years (my first post about the CEINT at Duke University is an Aug. 15, 2011 post about its mesocosms) been focused on examining the impact of nanoparticles (also called nanomaterials) on plant life and aquatic systems. This Jan. 9, 2017 US National Science Foundation (NSF) news release (h/t Jan. 9, 2017 Nanotechnology Now news item) provides a general description of the work,

We can’t see them, but nanomaterials, both natural and manmade, are literally everywhere, from our personal care products to our building materials–we’re even eating and drinking them.

At the NSF-funded Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT), headquartered at Duke University, scientists and engineers are researching how some of these nanoscale materials affect living things. One of CEINT’s main goals is to develop tools that can help assess possible risks to human health and the environment. A key aspect of this research happens in mesocosms, which are outdoor experiments that simulate the natural environment – in this case, wetlands. These simulated wetlands in Duke Forest serve as a testbed for exploring how nanomaterials move through an ecosystem and impact living things.

CEINT is a collaborative effort bringing together researchers from Duke, Carnegie Mellon University, Howard University, Virginia Tech, University of Kentucky, Stanford University, and Baylor University. CEINT academic collaborations include on-going activities coordinated with faculty at Clemson, North Carolina State and North Carolina Central universities, with researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Environmental Protection Agency labs, and with key international partners.

The research in this episode was supported by NSF award #1266252, Center for the Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology.

The mention of industry is in this video by O’Brien and Kellan, which describes CEINT’s latest work ,

Somewhat similar in approach although without a direction reference to industry, Canada’s Experimental Lakes Area (ELA) is being used as a test site for silver nanoparticles. Here’s more from the Distilling Science at the Experimental Lakes Area: Nanosilver project page,

Water researchers are interested in nanotechnology, and one of its most commonplace applications: nanosilver. Today these tiny particles with anti-microbial properties are being used in a wide range of consumer products. The problem with nanoparticles is that we don’t fully understand what happens when they are released into the environment.

The research at the IISD-ELA [International Institute for Sustainable Development Experimental Lakes Area] will look at the impacts of nanosilver on ecosystems. What happens when it gets into the food chain? And how does it affect plants and animals?

Here’s a video describing the Nanosilver project at the ELA,

You may have noticed a certain tone to the video and it is due to some political shenanigans, which are described in this Aug. 8, 2016 article by Bartley Kives for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) online news.

Paper as good at storing electrical energy as commercial supercapacitors

This is another potential nanocellulose application according to a Dec. 3, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Researchers at Linköping University’s Laboratory of Organic Electronics, Sweden, have developed power paper — a new material with an outstanding ability to store energy. The material consists of nanocellulose and a conductive polymer. …

One sheet, 15 centimetres in diameter and a few tenths of a millimetre thick can store as much as 1 F, which is similar to the supercapacitors currently on the market. The material can be recharged hundreds of times and each charge only takes a few seconds.

A Dec. 3, 2015 Linköping University press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail,

It’s a dream product in a world where the increased use of renewable energy requires new methods for energy storage — from summer to winter, from a windy day to a calm one, from a sunny day to one with heavy cloud cover.

“Thin films that function as capacitors have existed for some time. What we have done is to produce the material in three dimensions. We can produce thick sheets,” says Xavier Crispin, professor of organic electronics and co-author to the article just published in Advanced Science.

Other co-authors are researchers from KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Innventia, Technical University of Denmark and the University of Kentucky.

The material, power paper, looks and feels like a slightly plasticky paper and the researchers have amused themselves by using one piece to make an origami swan — which gives an indication of its strength.

The structural foundation of the material is nanocellulose, which is cellulose fibres which, using high-pressure water, are broken down into fibres as thin as 20 nm in diameter. With the cellulose fibres in a solution of water, an electrically charged polymer (PEDOT:PSS), also in a water solution, is added. The polymer then forms a thin coating around the fibres.

“The covered fibres are in tangles, where the liquid in the spaces between them functions as an electrolyte,” explains Jesper Edberg, doctoral student, who conducted the experiments together with Abdellah Malti, who recently completed his doctorate.

The new cellulose-polymer material has set a new world record in simultaneous conductivity for ions and electrons, which explains its exceptional capacity for energy storage. It also opens the door to continued development toward even higher capacity. Unlike the batteries and capacitors currently on the market, power paper is produced from simple materials – renewable cellulose and an easily available polymer. It is light in weight, it requires no dangerous chemicals or heavy metals and it is waterproof.

This press release also offers insight into funding and how scientists view requests for reports and oversight,

The Power Papers project has been financed by the Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation since 2012.

“They leave us to our research, without demanding lengthy reports, and they trust us. We have a lot of pressure on us to deliver, but it’s ok if it takes time, and we’re grateful for that,” says Professor Magnus Berggren, director of the Laboratory of Organic Electronics at Linköping University.

Naturally, commercialization efforts are already in the works. (Canadian nanocellulose community watch out! The Swedes are coming!),

The new power paper is just like regular pulp, which has to be dehydrated when making paper. The challenge is to develop an industrial-scale process for this.

“Together with KTH, Acreo and Innventia we just received SEK 34 million from the Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research to continue our efforts to develop a rational production method, a paper machine for power paper,” says Professor Berggren.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the team’s study,

An Organic Mixed Ion–Electron Conductor for Power Electronics by Abdellah Malti, Jesper Edberg, Hjalmar Granberg, Zia Ullah Khan, Jens W. Andreasen, Xianjie Liu, Dan Zhao, Hao Zhang, Yulong Yao, Joseph W. Brill, Isak Engquist, Mats Fahlman, Lars Wågberg, Xavier Crispin, and Magnus Berggren. Advanced Science DOI: 10.1002/advs.201500305 Article first published online: 2 DEC 2015

© 2015 The Authors. Published by WILEY-VCH Verlag GmbH & Co. KGaA, Weinheim

This paper is open access.

$81M for US National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI)

Academics, small business, and industry researchers are the big winners in a US National Science Foundation bonanza according to a Sept. 16, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

To advance research in nanoscale science, engineering and technology, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide a total of $81 million over five years to support 16 sites and a coordinating office as part of a new National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI).

The NNCI sites will provide researchers from academia, government, and companies large and small with access to university user facilities with leading-edge fabrication and characterization tools, instrumentation, and expertise within all disciplines of nanoscale science, engineering and technology.

A Sept. 16, 2015 NSF news release provides a brief history of US nanotechnology infrastructures and describes this latest effort in slightly more detail (Note: Links have been removed),

The NNCI framework builds on the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN), which enabled major discoveries, innovations, and contributions to education and commerce for more than 10 years.

“NSF’s long-standing investments in nanotechnology infrastructure have helped the research community to make great progress by making research facilities available,” said Pramod Khargonekar, assistant director for engineering. “NNCI will serve as a nationwide backbone for nanoscale research, which will lead to continuing innovations and economic and societal benefits.”

The awards are up to five years and range from $500,000 to $1.6 million each per year. Nine of the sites have at least one regional partner institution. These 16 sites are located in 15 states and involve 27 universities across the nation.

Through a fiscal year 2016 competition, one of the newly awarded sites will be chosen to coordinate the facilities. This coordinating office will enhance the sites’ impact as a national nanotechnology infrastructure and establish a web portal to link the individual facilities’ websites to provide a unified entry point to the user community of overall capabilities, tools and instrumentation. The office will also help to coordinate and disseminate best practices for national-level education and outreach programs across sites.

New NNCI awards:

Mid-Atlantic Nanotechnology Hub for Research, Education and Innovation, University of Pennsylvania with partner Community College of Philadelphia, principal investigator (PI): Mark Allen
Texas Nanofabrication Facility, University of Texas at Austin, PI: Sanjay Banerjee

Northwest Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of Washington with partner Oregon State University, PI: Karl Bohringer

Southeastern Nanotechnology Infrastructure Corridor, Georgia Institute of Technology with partners North Carolina A&T State University and University of North Carolina-Greensboro, PI: Oliver Brand

Midwest Nano Infrastructure Corridor, University of  Minnesota Twin Cities with partner North Dakota State University, PI: Stephen Campbell

Montana Nanotechnology Facility, Montana State University with partner Carlton College, PI: David Dickensheets
Soft and Hybrid Nanotechnology Experimental Resource,

Northwestern University with partner University of Chicago, PI: Vinayak Dravid

The Virginia Tech National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, PI: Michael Hochella

North Carolina Research Triangle Nanotechnology Network, North Carolina State University with partners Duke University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, PI: Jacob Jones

San Diego Nanotechnology Infrastructure, University of California, San Diego, PI: Yu-Hwa Lo

Stanford Site, Stanford University, PI: Kathryn Moler

Cornell Nanoscale Science and Technology Facility, Cornell University, PI: Daniel Ralph

Nebraska Nanoscale Facility, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, PI: David Sellmyer

Nanotechnology Collaborative Infrastructure Southwest, Arizona State University with partners Maricopa County Community College District and Science Foundation Arizona, PI: Trevor Thornton

The Kentucky Multi-scale Manufacturing and Nano Integration Node, University of Louisville with partner University of Kentucky, PI: Kevin Walsh

The Center for Nanoscale Systems at Harvard University, Harvard University, PI: Robert Westervelt

The universities are trumpeting this latest nanotechnology funding,

NSF-funded network set to help businesses, educators pursue nanotechnology innovation (North Carolina State University, Duke University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)

Nanotech expertise earns Virginia Tech a spot in National Science Foundation network

ASU [Arizona State University] chosen to lead national nanotechnology site

UChicago, Northwestern awarded $5 million nanotechnology infrastructure grant

That is a lot of excitement.

US Dept. of Agriculture awards $3.8M for nanotechnology research grants

I wonder just how much funding the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) is devoting to nanotechnology this year (2015). I first came across an announcement of $23M in the body of a news item about Zinkicide (my April 7, 2015 posting),

Found in Florida orchards in 2005, a citrus canker, citrus greening, poses a serious threat to the US state’s fruit industry. An April 2, 2105 news item on phys.org describes a possible solution to the problem,

Since it was discovered in South Florida in 2005, the plague of citrus greening has spread to nearly every grove in the state, stoking fears among growers that the $10.7 billion-a-year industry may someday disappear.

Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture has awarded the University of Florida a $4.6 million grant aimed at testing a potential new weapon in the fight against citrus greening: Zinkicide, a bactericide invented by a nanoparticle researcher at the University of Central Florida.

An April 29, 2015 article by Diego Flammini for Farm.com describes the latest USDA nanotechnology funding announcement,

In an effort to increase America’s food security, nutrition, food safety and environmental protection, the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) announced $3.8 million in nanotechnology research grants.

Flammini lists three of the eight recipients,

University of Georgia
With $496,192, the research team will develop different sensors that are able to detect fungal pathogens in crops. The project will also develop a smartphone app for farmers to have so they can access their information whenever necessary.

Rutgers University
The school will use its $450,000 to conduct a nationwide survey about nanotechnology and gauge consumer beliefs about it and its relationship to health. Among the specifics it will touch on is the use of visuals to communicate nanotechnology.

University of Massachusetts
The researchers will concentrate their $444,200 on developing a platform to detect pathogens in food that is better than the current methods.

A full list of the recipients can be found in the April 27, 2015 USDA news release featuring the $3.8M in awards,

  • The University of Georgia, Athens, Ga., $496,192
  • University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa., $496,180
  • University of Kentucky Research Foundation, Lexington, Ky., $450,000
  • University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass., $444,200
  • North Dakota State University, Fargo, N.D., $149,714
  • Rutgers University, New Brunswick. N.J., $450,000
  • Pennsylvania State University, University Park, University Park, Pa., $447,788
  • West Virginia University, Morgantown, W. Va., $496,168
  • University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wis., $450,100

You can find more details about the awards in this leaflet featuring the USDA project descriptions for the eight recipients.

Toxicity, nanoparticles, soil, and Europe’s NANO-ECOTOXICITY Project

I have featured pieces on nanoparticles, toxicity, and soil in the past (this Aug. 15, 2011 posting about Duke University’s mesocosm project is probably the most relevant) but this study is the first one I’ve seen focusing on earthworms. From the Sept. 23, 2013 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

From the clothes and make-up we wear to the electronic devices we use every day, nanotechnology is becoming ubiquitous. But while industry has mastered the production of such materials, little is known about their fate once their service life comes to an end. The NANO-ECOTOXICITY project looked into their impact on soil organisms.

The Sept. 23, 2013 CORDIS (European Commission Community Research and Development Information Service) news release, which originated the new item, offers a Q&A (Question and Answer) with the project research leader,

Dr Maria Diez-Ortiz, research leader of the NANO-ECOTOXICITY project, tells us about her research findings and how she expects them to help increase knowledge and shape tools allowing for standard environmental hazard and risk-assessment methodologies.

What is the background of the NANO-ECOTOXICITY project?

Nanotechnology is based on the idea that, by engineering the size and shape of materials at the scale of atoms, i.e. nanometres (nm), distinct optical, electronic, or magnetic properties can be tuned to produce novel properties of commercial value. However, there is an obvious concern that such novel properties may also lead to novel behaviour when interacting with biological organisms, and thus to potentially novel toxic effects.

Since nanoparticles (NPs) are similar in size to viruses, their uptake by and transport through tissues are based on mechanisms distinct from those of molecular uptake and transport. Therefore, there is concern that standard toxicological tests may not be applicable or reliable in relation to NPs, hence compromising current risk-assessment procedures.

The majority of research on nano-safety in the environment has so far focused on the aquatic environment. Current research on environmental fate, however, indicates that soils will become the biggest environmental sink for nanoparticles. Following their entry into liquid waste streams, nanoparticles will pass through wastewater-treatment. processes, ending up in waste sludge which may accumulate in the agricultural land where this sludge is often applied.

What are the main objectives of the project?

This project deals with the toxicokinetics – that is, the rate at which a chemical enters a body and affects it – of metal nanoparticles coming into contact with soil-dwelling organisms. The aim is to determine NPs’ fate and effects in terrestrial ecosystems by means of case studies with zinc oxide and silver NPs, which represent different fate kinetics.

The project’s main objectives are to assess the toxicity of metal nanoparticles in soils in the short and long term; the main route of exposure for earthworms and whether it differs from those of ionic metals; and, finally, the influence of the exposure media on metal nanoparticle toxicity.

What is new or innovative about the project and the way it is addressing these issues?

We have been running a long-term study where soils with AgNP [silver nanoparticles] were stored and left to age for up to a year; their toxicity was tested at the start and after three, seven and 12 months of ageing. The results showed that silver toxicity increased over time, meaning that short-term standard toxicity tests may underestimate the environmental risk of silver nanoparticles.

In parallel, we found that organisms exposed to silver nanoparticles in short-term studies accumulated higher silver concentrations than organisms that were exposed to the same mass concentration of ionic silver. However, these NP exposed organisms actually suffered lower toxic effects. This observation contradicts the prevailing assumption in toxicology that the internalised concentration is directly related to chemical concentration at the target site and hence to its toxicity. This observation creates a new paradigm for nano-ecotoxicology.

What is not yet known is whether the accumulated NP metal may in the longer-term ultimately become toxic (e.g. through dissolution and ion release) in cells and tissues where AgNPs may be stored. Should this occur, the high concentrations accumulated may ultimately result in greater long-term toxicity for NPs than for ionic forms. This may reveal these accumulated NPs as internalised ‘time bombs’ relevant to long-term effects and toxicity.

However, it has to be borne in mind that the redicted environmental concentrations resulting from current use of nanoparticles (e.g. results from EU projects like NANOFATE2) are many times smaller than those used in these studies, meaning that such accumulations of nanoparticle-related silver are unlikely to occur in the environment or, ultimately, in humans.

What difficulties did you encounter and how did you solve them?

The main problems encountered relate to the tracking of nanoparticles inside the tissues and soils, as both are complex matrices. The analysis of the particles is a challenge in itself, even when in water, but to get information about their state in these matrices often requires unrealistic exposure concentrations (due to low detection limits of the highly specialised techniques used for analysis) or extraction of the particles from the matrices, which could potentially change the state of the particles.

In this project, I travelled to University of Kentucky to work with Jason Unrine and used gentle water-based extractions of soil samples immediately before analysing them using ‘Field-flow fractionation’ and ‘Inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry’ to identify the state of nanoparticles in my aged soils.

To look at what form (speciation) of silver and zinc from the nanoparticle exposures could be found inside worms I collaborated with NANOFATE researchers at Cardiff University who fixed and thinly sectioned the worm tissues. I was lucky to be given the time to use specialist facilities like the UK’s Diamond Light Source synchrotron to investigate where and in what form the metals and potential nanoparticles could be found in these tissues.

The main challenge is that as soon as you take nanoparticles out of the manufacturers’ bottle they start changing, particularly when put into environments likes natural soils and waters, or even organisms. Therefore a lot of characterisation is needed during exposure to establish the state of the nanoparticles the organisms have been exposed to and how fast they are changing from pristine particles to dissolved ions, or particles with completely different surfaces.

Technical solutions to characterisation have been found during this short project, but this will remain a logistical challenge for many years to come as the analysis equipment is still very specialised and expensive and therefore not generally available.

What are the concrete results from the research so far?

The project has helped us draw various conclusions regarding the impact of NPs on the environment and how to assess them. First, we now know that soil acidity, or pH, influences the dissolution and toxicity of ZnO nanoparticles [zinc oxide].

Then, we found that toxicity of silver nanoparticles’ increases over time and that the particles’ coating affects their toxicity to soil invertebrates.

As previously mentioned, earthworms exposed to silver nanoparticles for 28 days accumulated higher silver concentrations than earthworms exposed to silver ions, without the excess silver from the nanoparticles having a toxic effect. [emphasis mine] Moreover, soil ingestion was identified as the main route of exposure to AgNP and ZnONP in earthworms.

How can industry and decision-makers ensure that nanomaterials do not impact our environment?

We hope that this project, and the larger EU project NANOFATE to which it is linked, will provide knowledge and tools enabling standard environmental-hazard and risk-assessment methodologies to be applied to engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) with just a few judicious modifications. The current systems and protocols for chemical risk assessment have been developed over decades, and where no novel toxic mechanisms exist, our results tend to say that nano fits in as long as we measure the right things and characterise realistic exposures properly.

Our research aims to determine the minimum methodological tweaks needed. So far everything indicates that the potential benefits from nanotechnology can be realised and managed safely alongside other chemicals. While we are fairly confident at this stage that ENPs impose no greater acute effects on important biological parameters – like reproduction – than their ionic forms, the NANO-ECOTOXICITY results demonstrate that we have some way to go before we can state loud and clear that we do not believe there is any novel low-level or long-term effect.

As for all chemicals, proving such a negative is impossible using short-term tests. We think the final conclusions by industry and regulators on safe use of nanoparticles should and will have to be made according to a ‘weight of evidence’ approach – proving there is a gap between predicted likely exposure levels and those levels seen to cause any effects or accumulations within ecosystem species.

What are the next topics for your research?

This project has finished but the next step for any other funding opportunity would be to address increasingly environmentally relevant exposure scenarios by analysing how nanoparticles modify in the environment and interact with living tissues and organisms at different trophic levels. I would like to investigate nanoparticle transformation and interactions in living tissues. To date, the studies that have identified this ‘excess’ accumulation of non-toxic metal loads in nanoparticleexposed organisms have only been short term.

Apart from the obviously increased food-chain transfer potential, is also not known whether, over the longer term, the accumulated NP-derived metal ultimately becomes toxic when present in tissues and cells. Such transformation and release of metal ions within tissues may ultimately result in greater longterm toxicity for NPs than for ionic forms.

Furthermore, I want to test exposures in a functioning model ecosystem including interspecific interactions and trophic transfer. Since interactions between biota and nanoparticles are relevant in natural soil systems, caution is needed when attempting to predict the ecological consequences of nanoparticles based on laboratory assays conducted with only a single species. In the presence of the full complement of biological components of soil systems, complex NPs may follow a range of pathways in which coatings may be removed and replaced with exudate materials. Studies to quantify the nature of these interactions are therefore needed to identify the fate, bioavailability and toxicity of realistic ‘non-pristine’ forms of NPs present in real soil environments.

New to me was the material about ageing silver nanoparticles and their increased toxicity over time. While this is an interesting piece of information it’s not necessarily all that useful. It seems even with their increased uptake compared to silver ions, silver nanoparticles (Diez-Ortiz doesn’t indicate whether or not * they tested variously aged silver nanoparticles) did not have toxic effects on the earthworms tested.

The NANO-ECOTOXICITY website doesn’t appear to exist anymore but you can find the NANOFATE (Nanoparticle Fate Assessment and Toxicity in the Environment) website here.

* ‘not’ removed to clarify meaning, Oct. 9, 2013. (Note: I had on Oct. 8, 2013 removed ‘not’ in a second place from the sentence in an attempt t o clarify the meaning and ended up not making any sense at all.) Please read Maria Diez-Ortiz in the Comments, as she clarifies matters in a way I could never hope to.

Bedbugs: a bean-based solution from the Balkans or an artificial spider web solution from Fibertrap

Today (Apr. 10, 2013), I came across two news items about ridding oneself of bedbugs. Given the amount of coverage the pests and their growing ubiquity have been receiving the last few years, it seems that at some point everyone will experience an infestation. So, it’s good to see that scientists and entrepreneurs are working on solutions.

First up, there’s a team of scientists who are studying how people in the Balkans rid themselves of bedbugs, from the Apr. 9, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Inspired by a traditional Balkan bedbug remedy, researchers have documented how microscopic hairs on kidney bean leaves effectively stab and trap the biting insects, according to findings published online today [Apr. 9, 2013] in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface. Scientists at UC [University of California] Irvine and the University of Kentucky are now developing materials that mimic the geometry of the leaves.

I knew they were a problem but I hadn’t realized how very hardy the bugs are, from the news item,

Bedbugs have made a dramatic comeback in the U.S. in recent years, infesting everything from homes and hotels to schools, movie theaters and hospitals. Although not known to transmit disease, their bites can cause burning, itching, swelling and psychological distress. It helps to catch infestations early, but the nocturnal parasites’ ability to hide almost anywhere, breed rapidly and “hitchhike” from place to place makes detection difficult. They can survive as long as a year without a blood meal.

Current commercial prevention methods, including freezing, extreme heating, vacuuming and pesticides, can be costly and unreliable. Many sufferers resort to ineffective, potentially dangerous measures, such as spraying nonapproved insecticides themselves rather than hiring a professional.

The University of California Irvine Apr. 9, 2013 news release, which originated the news item, describes the researchers’ [Doctoral student Megan Szyndler, entomologist Catherine Loudon and chemist Robert Corn of UC Irvine and entomologists Kenneth Haynes and Michael Potter of the University of Kentucky] inspiration, the bean leaves, at more length and the proposed bedbug solution,

Their work was motivated by a centuries-old remedy for bedbugs used in Bulgaria, Serbia and other southeast European countries. Kidney bean leaves were strewn on the floor next to beds and seemed to ensnare the blood-seeking parasites on their nightly forays. The bug-encrusted greenery was burned the next morning to exterminate the insects.

Through painstaking detective work, the scientists discovered that the creatures are trapped within seconds of stepping on a leaf, their legs impaled by microscopic hooked hairs known botanically as trichomes.

Using the bean leaves as templates, the researchers have microfabricated materials that closely resemble them geometrically. The synthetic surfaces snag the bedbugs temporarily but do not yet stop them as effectively as real leaves, Loudon said, suggesting that crucial mechanics of the trichomes still need to be determined.

Theoretically, bean leaves could be used for pest control, but they dry out and don’t last very long. They also can’t easily be applied to locations other than a floor. Synthetic materials could provide a nontoxic alternative.

“Plants exhibit extraordinary abilities to entrap insects,” said Loudon, lead author of the paper. “Modern scientific techniques let us fabricate materials at a microscopic level, with the potential to ‘not let the bedbugs bite’ without pesticides.”

“Nature is a hard act to follow, but the benefits could be enormous,” Potter said. “Imagine if every bedbug inadvertently brought into a dwelling was captured before it had a chance to bite and multiply.”

Here’s a citation and link to the article,

Entrapment of bed bugs by leaf trichomes inspires microfabrication of biomimetic surfaces by Megan W. Szyndler,  Kenneth F. Haynes, Michael F. Potter, Robert M. Corn,
and Catherine Loudon. J. R. Soc. Interface. 2013 10 83 20130174; doi:10.1098/rsif.2013.0174 (published 10 April 2013) 1742-5662

This article is open access.

Moving onto the second bedbug item, Azonano features an Apr. 10, 2013 news item about Fibertrap and its artificial spider web trap for bedbugs,

A breakthrough and innovative solution to the growing plague of bedbugs is about to impact the lives of people suffering from one of the world’s most tenacious pests. Fibertrap is a New York based firm that has developed a revolutionary new way to stop bedbugs, termites and other pests without the use of harmful and toxic chemicals and instead by using an artificial, micro-fiber spider web.

Here’s more about how this solution works,

As the war against bedbugs rages on these nasty insects have become increasingly resistant to pesticides and other common methods of pest control. Fibertrap’s ground-breaking new method addresses the fundamental weakness in all bedbugs and pests: mobility. Utilizing micro-fibers 50 times thinner than human hair, Fibertrap entangles the bugs as they crawl trapping them in the man-made web. Without the ability to move and seek food the creatures will die, ceasing re-production and preventing the establishment of infestation.

Most often, bedbugs move between walls via electrical outlets to unsuspecting home and business owners. To help prevent bedbug migration, Fibertrap intends to produce easy to use traps and insulation products using this innovative new web-like material that will allow the consumer to protect their homes, apartments, offices and dorm rooms with ease and peace of mind.

You can read more about it at Azonano or you can try the Fibertrap website. I cannot find any information about purchasing a Fibertrap product. I think this is publicity designed to excite interest and further investment so these materials ,which are currently at a prototype stage, can be brought to market.

I hope someone is able to get a pest control product for bedbugs to us soon.

NanoRacks and Science Exchange

I had written about Science Exchange (a marketplace for scientists and research facilities) in my Sept. 2, 2011 piece posted about one month after the service was publicly launched. I generally wouldn’t write about them again for a while but a Dec. 14, 2011 article by David Zax for Fast Company (Need A Lab In Outer Space? Try ScienceExchange, The Airbnb Of Weird Science) caught my eye,

Let’s say you’re a scientist, and you’re running an experiment, but there’s just one pesky thing getting in your way: gravity. A few years ago, you’d pretty much have been out of luck. But now, with a startup called ScienceExchange, a marketplace for research assistance, you can send your samples up to the International Space Station in about nine months. ScienceExchange, which opened to the public in August, was originally intended to help forge much more sublunary connections within the research community. But in the few months it’s been operational, says cofounder Dan Knox, ScienceExchange has also become a marketplace for extreme and weird science, too.

“It’s been one of the most fun aspects, hearing about these amazing resources,” Knox tells Fast Company, “and realizing that at the moment there isn’t a good way for them to gain exposure outside of creating their own web presence…I love the fact that NanoRacks listed their facility.”

NanoRacks is where you turn if you want to remove gravity from your experiment. NanoRacks works together with astronauts at the International Space Station, where it maintains laboratory equipment. In 2005, Congress designated a portion of the ISS a national laboratory and directed NASA to “increase the utilization of the ISS by other Federal entities and the private sector.” NanoRacks, which has been open for business a little over a year, is a part of that.

Given my particular interest in all things nano, I felt compelled to investigate. I still don’t understand why this business calls itself NanoRacks (what makes it nano?) but I was able to find out a little more about the services that are offered (excerpted from the About us page,

NanoRacks provides the ultimate ‘Plug and Play’ microgravity research facilities allowing small standardized payloads to be plugged into any of our platforms, providing interface with the International Space Station power and data capabilities.

Our philosophy is to bring together three concepts as our driving force: low-cost, standardization of hardware, and understanding the customer. We like to believe that in space, small is the new big. …

Our company brings together entrepreneurs, scientists and engineers who have real-life experience and share a passion for space including humanity’s utilization of low-earth orbit.

I believe this organization is in Kentucky as they are affiliated with a number of agencies based in that US state. From their Vision page,

Our philosophy is to bring together three concepts as our driving force: low-cost, standardization of hardware, and understanding the customer. Our corporate structure includes a Houston team steeped in the experience of working payload development for every launch vehicle and space stations from Mir to ISS. We are seamlessly interfaced with our non-profit partner Kentucky Space –which includes University of Kentucky and Morehead University, which handle payload operations as well as having their own interest in space-based educational programs.

Here’s a video that demonstrates some of what NanoRacks is about,

Getting back to Zax’s article, there is some discussion of other projects such as imaging an entire mouse’s brain at the ‘sub-micron’ scale or needing to simulate a Category 5 hurricane. As for the reference to Airbnb, that is a business that also connects people (from the Wikipedia essay),

Airbnb is an online service that matches people seeking vacation rentals and other short-term accommodations with those with rooms to rent, generally private parties that are not professional hoteliers. The site was founded in August 2008 by Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. In July 2011, the company had over 100,000 listings in 16,000 cities and 186 countries. Listings include private rooms, entire apartments, castles, boats, manors, tree houses, tipis, igloos, private islands and other properties.

I gather Airbnb suffered some sort of a scandal earlier this year when someone who used the service didn’t behave well in the other person’s home. Zax asks Knox about the potential for similar problems on Science Exchange,

Yes, it’s something I worry about,” says Knox. ScienceExchange is tightly controlled, though, where Airbnb is open: “We check who a provider is, verify who they are, and that they have the ability to provide.” These concerns are independent to ScienceExchange, he adds, and exist any time a researcher entrusts another facility with her samples.

So if you’re in the market for a research facility or you’re in a research facility that wants to sell its services, you have the option of forging out on your own or going through Science Exchange.