Scientists to Test Toxicity of Nanomaterials

November 11, 2005
Scientists Test Toxicity of Nanomaterials

Materials science is getting small – on the order of the atomic scale. Fibers, spheres, crystals and films 1,000 times thinner than human hair hold the promise of producing faster cars and planes, more powerful computers and satellites, better microchips and batteries. Inventors even plan to use nanomaterials to make artificial muscle, military armor and medicines. Nanomaterials can already be found in sunscreens, concrete, tennis rackets, car bumpers and wrinkle-resistant clothes. But are they safe?

Through a new four-year, $1.8-million National Science Foundation grant, Brown University scientists are testing a variety of nanomaterials to see how they interact with human and animal cells. The aim: Find out which sizes, shapes, compounds and coatings damage or kill cells. That information can be used to manufacture non-toxic types.

“The question isn’t whether nanomaterials are good or bad,” said Robert Hurt, a Brown professor of engineering and the lead investigator on the project. “The question is which are toxic? Under what conditions? And can we make and purify them in different ways to avoid toxicity – to make ‘green’ nanomaterials?”

The grant supports important early work at Brown in an emerging field of environmental health.

According to the Institute of Medicine, the federal government last year invested nearly $1 billion in nanotechnology, yet little is known about how engineered nanoparticles affect human health. To fill the knowledge gap, the National Science Foundation and other government agencies are spending a total of $38.4 million this fiscal year in research on the environmental, health and safety aspects of nanomaterials. A journal, Nanotoxicology, was launched this year along with the first database of research on the biological and environmental impacts of nanoparticles.

Hurt said nanoparticles have captured the imaginations of materials scientists and chemists because they have desirable properties such as extreme strength or outstanding electrical or thermal conductivity. However, a small number of animal studies show that some nanomaterials can damage brain or lung tissue or block blood flow.

To better understand which materials are toxic and which are safe, the Brown project takes a multidisciplinary approach.

In the Division of Engineering, Hurt and colleague Gregory Crawford are creating carbon nanotubes, fibers and spheres – all popular in electronics – by the billions. Crawford is arranging the materials on glass slides based on size, shape and chemical composition, a novel “chip” platform that will allow for precise, systematic testing.

The chips will then head to Jeffrey Morgan and Agnes Kane at Brown Medical School.

Morgan, a biologist and tissue engineer, will test the materials’ affect on lab-grown human skin cells. Kane, a pathologist, will test the materials on macrophages, cells that defend against foreign invaders, culled from mice. Both will check to see if cells die, incur DNA damage or trigger exaggerated immune defenses.

Phil Brown, professor of sociology and environmental studies, will explore the social and ethical implications of nanotechnology and how to communicate health exposure risks to the public, including faculty and students who work with nanomaterials in campus labs.

Source: Brown University

Explore further: Wrinkles and crumples make graphene better

Related Stories

Wrinkles and crumples make graphene better

March 21, 2016

Crumple a piece of paper and it's probably destined for the trash can, but new research shows that repeatedly crumpling sheets of the nanomaterial graphene can actually enhance some of its properties. In some cases, the more ...

Nanomaterials poised for big impact in construction

July 29, 2010

Nanomaterials are poised for widespread use in the construction industry, where they can offer significant advantages for a variety of applications ranging from making more durable concrete to self-cleaning windows. But widespread ...

Single nanomaterial yields many laser colors

April 29, 2012

Red, green, and blue lasers have become small and cheap enough to find their way into products ranging from BluRay DVD players to fancy pens, but each color is made with different semiconductor materials and by elaborate ...

Bone-growing nanomaterial could improve orthopaedic implants

September 17, 2007

For orthopaedic implants to be successful, bone must meld to the metal that these artificial hips, knees and shoulders are made of. A team of Brown University engineers, led by Thomas Webster, has discovered a new material ...

Recommended for you

Personal cooling units on the horizon

April 28, 2016

Firefighters entering burning buildings, athletes competing in the broiling sun and workers in foundries may eventually be able to carry their own, lightweight cooling units with them, thanks to a nanowire array that cools, ...

Exploring phosphorene, a promising new material

April 28, 2016

Two-dimensional phosphane, a material known as phosphorene, has potential application as a material for semiconducting transistors in ever faster and more powerful computers. But there's a hitch. Many of the useful properties ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.