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30 September 2015

New study on environmental impact of nanoparticles

Nanotechnology offers new opportunities for development on a broad front, from medicinal drugs to technologies that help us to tackle climate threats. But there is also a risk of such innovations contributing to undesirable environmental effects. Mistra Environmental Nanosafety seeks to promote sustainable use of nanomaterials.

Runoff from some of Sweden’s major roads has been found to contain the substance wolfram carbide. The cause is not yet entirely clear, but the studded winter tyres of vehicles are under suspicion since nanostructured material made from wolfram carbide is used to produce a particularly hardwearing metal from which tyre studs, for example, are made.

‘It’s vital to investigate dispersal routes for nanomaterials in nature. Nanomaterials encapsulated in products give less cause for concern about impact than materials that get out into the environment,’ says Sofia Svedhem, a scientist at Chalmers University of Technology.

Wolfram carbide is an example of how nanoparticles are inadvertently dispersed in the environment today. It is also the starting point for one of the three case studies to be implemented within the Mistra Environmental Nanosafety research programme, of which Sofia Svedhem is the Programme Director.

‘We want to look into whether wolfram carbide is deposited in roadside soils or whether the material is transported further to watercourses and the sea. Does it reach the fish? That’s the kind of thing we don’t know at present,’ she says.

Many scientists to be involved

When the programme is in full swing, later in 2015, it will involve some 30 researchers in nanoscience, medicine and social sciences. The purpose is to increase knowledge of the environmental risks that nanomaterials may entail.

‘We want to promote a responsible attitude towards both nanomaterials and other chemicals that may end up in the environment. The programme will focus on whether nanomaterials involve any particular environmental risks and, if so, what these are.’

Nanotechnology is an umbrella term for methods of analysing, producing and using materials that are on a nanoscale, i.e. less than a thousandth of a millimetre in size. This is an area that has expanded rapidly in the past few years and already has many applications, both commercial and in research.

Study on environmental effects of graphene

Wolfram carbide is a nanomaterial already in use and being dispersed in nature today. The programme researchers will also study how to avoid undesired environmental effects of new nanomaterials from the start, before they spread beyond research laboratories. Graphene is a new material whose originators were honoured with the Nobel Prize as recently as in 2010, and that many people hope will yield new products and applications. In another case study in the programme, the scientists will focus on how to engage in preventive work on graphene.

‘The nanoscale may bring hazards that can’t be handled with traditional risk management. Part of our work will involve trying to find out whether today’s risk analyses need to be adapted to nanomaterials.’

By the time the programme ends in 2019, Sofia Svedhem expects the researchers to have not only accumulated specific facts relating to the various case studies, but also compiled general knowledge of risk assessment concerning nanomaterials that should be usable by public agencies and companies alike.

‘We hope to foster a situation in which more decisions about nanomaterials can be taken in a sustainable way. Presumably we’ll also develop new analytical methods.’

Text: Henrik Lundström, Vetenskapsjournalisterna

Mistra Environmental Nanosafety

The aim is for this research programme to boost knowledge about potential environmental risks of nanomaterials. It will be headed by Chalmers University of Technology in collaboration with the University of Gothenburg, Karolinska Institute, KTH Royal Institute of Technology and Lund University. The company Akzo Nobel is also included. The total budget of the programme is SEK 50 million over four years, and Mistra is to provide a total of SEK 40 million in funding for the research. The remainder will be derived from synergies with other projects conducted by partners taking part.

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