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Duke U Wins $15 Million Grant Renewal for Nanomaterial Research

The Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT), a multi-institutional research center headquartered at Duke University's Pratt School of Engineering, has won a $15 million grant renewal from the National Science Foundation and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

CEINT, which was founded in 2008, studies the effect of long-term nanomaterial exposure on organisms and ecosystems, including where nanoparticles accumulate, how they interact with other chemicals, and how they affect the environment. In the past, the center has researched the effects of simple nanomaterials on simple environments, but this new grant will enable the organization to evaluate "more complex nanomaterials in more realistic environments, such as agricultural lands and water treatment systems, where these materials are likely to be found," said Mark Wiesner, director of CEINT, in a prepared statement.

Nanomaterials are ultra-tiny particles, about 1/10,000th the diameter of a human hair. Naturally occurring nanoparticles can be found everywhere, but CEINT studies the effect of engineered nanomaterials on the environment. Nanoparticles can be highly reactive with other chemicals in the environment and can disrupt activities in living organisms, according to information from Duke University. For example, nanosilver is used in clothing to help kill odor-causing bacteria.

To assist with the nanomaterial research, CEINT has developed open-air structures called "mesocosms" that simulate natural environments for the purpose of long-term observation and research. CEINT researchers used a mesocosm that simulates a wetland environment to determine that "even low doses of silver nanoparticles used in many consumer products produced about a third less biomass in a mesocosm," according to information from Duke University. With this new grant, researchers will examine how nanomaterials are transferred between organisms in a mesocosm.

Duke researchers also developed a hyperspectral imaging technique that measures light scattering caused by different types of nanoparticles and is sensitive enough to analyze nanoparticles in all types of water, including waste water. CEINT plans to use the technique in future long-term studies of how nanoparticles move and accumulate in ecological systems.

The CEINT research team includes experts in engineering, ecosystems biology, chemistry, geology, materials science, computational science, mathematical modeling, and other specialities. The multi-institutional team includes 29 faculty collaborators and 76 graduate and undergraduate students from Duke University, Carnegie Mellon University, Howard University, Virginia Tech, Stanford University, University of Kentucky, and Baylor University.

About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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