Northwestern University has joined forces with four Midwestern universities and a national laboratory to establish the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, which this fall received funding from the National Science Foundation.
Chemists, environmental engineers and freshwater scientists will work on developing a deeper understanding of nanotechnology’s environmental footprint and potential toxicity -- areas little understood, despite a rapid increase of nanomaterials used in consumer products, from cellphones and laptops to sunscreen and beer bottles.
“We need to know how the tiny particles interact with their environment, and this requires advanced imaging and spectroscopic tools that can see where no eye has seen before,” said Franz M. Geiger, a professor of chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences who is leading the Northwestern team.
“And the nanoparticles must be studied without taking them out of their biogeochemical environment or modifying them for analysis,” he said. “This is an extremely daunting challenge but one we relish.”
Geiger’s team includes Stephanie Walter, Julianne Troiano and Laura Olenick, all doctoral students in his lab. They will utilize their unique nonlinear optics laboratory to develop new imaging techniques and provide testing grounds for nanoparticles created by other center members.
Robert Hamers, a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is director of the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology. Other center members are the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, the University of Illinois and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.
“Our center -- involving the expertise of researchers at six different institutions -- takes ample advantage of synergy, which, by definition, produces effects that cannot be produced by summing up the individual parts,” Geiger said.
Center researchers will focus on understanding how the surfaces of new as well as aged or weathered nanoparticles interact at the molecular level with cell membranes and what kind of biochemical pathways are triggered when these interactions occur. The findings ultimately could help inform the development of federal regulations.
In addition to the molecular studies, the researchers will study two freshwater organisms, a water flea and a bacterium, feeding them nanoparticles and tracking the particles using methods to be developed in the center. The biochemical pathways will be studied to determine if the nanoparticles have any toxic effects on the organisms.
Some of the nanomaterials produce a signal by lighting up when light of a certain color is shined on them, allowing the particles to be imaged inside living organisms. Geiger and his team will apply nonlinear optical approaches to study a subset of these materials: those that can be accessed using the suite of ultrafast laser systems available in his laboratory.
The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology received a three-year, $1.75 million Phase 1 Center for Chemical Innovation grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) this fall. Following the initial phase, the researchers will have the opportunity to apply to the NSF for a much larger grant to continue their work.
Geiger’s research with the new center connects to Northwestern’s strategic plan goals of discovering creative solutions to problems that will improve lives, communities and the world as well as focusing on nanoscience, one of Northwestern’s 10 areas of greatest strength.