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Johns Hopkins Joins National Sustainable Nanotechnology Project

Effort aims to avert environmental impacts of emerging materials

Sept. 9, 2015
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
CONTACT: Arthur Hirsch
Office: 443-997-9909
Cell: 443-462-8702
ahirsch6@jhu.edu

Scientists at the Johns Hopkins University have joined a national effort to produce environmentally friendly materials built at the atomic and molecular scale.

The environmental impact of materials used in emerging areas of nanotechnology – used, for instance, in video screens, solar cells and electric car batteries – is largely unknown, but scientists working across the country under a new federal grant hope to learn how these products affect the natural world before their commercial use expands.

“We’re trying to be proactive,” as these materials are expected to become much more prevalent in the years to come, said Howard Fairbrother, a professor in the Department of Chemistry who is leading the research at Johns Hopkins. “The hope is we’re going to be able to tackle and provide new knowledge and solutions to potential environmental problems.” The aim is to translate the knowledge acquired from these studies into the creation of “safe by design” nanomaterials.

Johns Hopkins is one of six research institutions joining work that began in 2012 with five other universities and one national laboratory. This second round of research is being conducted with a five-year $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

Based at the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the project was launched after discussions by scientists at UW-Madison, UW-Milwaukee, the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois, Northwestern University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.  Joining the effort for the next five-year phase along with Johns Hopkins are the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Tuskegee University; the University of Iowa; Augsburg College and Georgia Institute of Technology.

Fairbrother plans to have two or three graduate student researchers working as part of the CSN and provide laboratory experience for undergraduates as well.

Fairbrother said one of the areas his laboratory will focus on is studying nanoparticles embedded in polymer composites, exposing them to the effects of elements that might hit them in a landfill or in nature, including heat, cold, light, water and microbes.  Researchers want to know: How will the nano-based materials react, and will those reactions be harmful to the environment?

“We’re not out to bash nanotechnologies,” Fairbrother said. The point is to understand their interactions with their surroundings, he said.

Fairbrother said that the effects of nanomaterials embedded in polymers on the environment is largely unknown, principally because they are only now starting to be commercialized.

“We don’t know very much about what nanoparticles do if they get into the environment,” Robert Hamers, a professor of chemistry at UW-Madison, said in a blog post announcing the second round of the project. “What happens to the little particles of metal oxides, cadmium selenide, and other materials? Are they taken up by organisms that might get into the food chain or do they have other effects that we should know about?”

Nanotechnology deals with matter below a certain size threshold, usually defined as 1 to 100 nanometers, or 1 to 100 billionths of a meter. At this atomic and molecular scale, particles’ properties can change, opening the door to a range of commercial and medical applications. Government-sponsored research and commercial use of the materials picked up momentum in the early 2000s.

Fairbrother said the project hopes to reverse the usual order of responding to an environmental problem after it appears. The scope and duration of the project, he said, “gives us the opportunity to really dig deep.”

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