Global water institute laboratory research

Exploring impacts of engineered nanoparticles on the environment

The increasing popularity of engineered nanoparticles (ENPs) in emerging technology has generated significant excitement in the scientific community. ENPs, defined as human-designed and manufactured microscopic particles with at least one dimension less than 100nm, are the subject of exhaustive research due to their incredible strength, excellent conductivity and strong chemical resistance properties. Their potential for use in the biomedical, optical and electronic fields is phenomenal, resulting in a tremendous increase in production which is only expected to rise.

Biogeochemistry lab opening - Global Water Institute

The possible human health and ecological consequences from the dispersal of engineered nanoparticles are not yet known, however, there is some evidence that certain ENPs can have worrying impacts, causing toxicity in microorganisms and rats in past studies.   As a result, the impact of ENPs on humans and ecosystems has become a concern to researchers, regulators, manufacturers and consumers.

There is the potential for ENPs to enter our waterways through a multitude of ways:  reaching subsurface aquifers through the disposal of products containing ENPs in landfills; leaching through soils to invade wetlands and subsurface aquifers due to biosolids that contain ENPs being applied to agricultural lands; and entering wetland ecosystems through effluent from wastewater treatment plants, caused by activities such as washing materials that contain ENPs.

Given initial indications that some nanoparticles are toxic, there is real concern that they could cause serious health issues for humans if ingested through water, and also have devastating effects on our ecosystems.  Unfortunately, the risks of ENPs to subsurface environments are as yet unknown, limited, in part, by a lack of basic scientific understanding of their transport in the subsurface.

Associate Professor Denis O’Carroll of UNSW’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering is filling these critical knowledge gaps through his research investigating the fate and toxicity of engineered nanoparticles in the environment. His current research focuses on ENPs in their expected form when they are released into the environment.

“Toxicity and transport research conducted to date has focused on ENPs as received from industry suppliers or synthesized in the laboratory - very little is known about the environmental behaviour and toxicological effects of ENPs released from commercial products through use or wear,” said A/Prof Carroll.

“It isn’t possible to fully assess the risks associated with the use of ENPs through studies that solely use pristine ENPs, given that the release process from commercial products will alter their environmental behaviour. As such, studies incorporating the transformations or alterations of ENPs associated with environmental conditions or release mechanisms need to be initiated.”

The new lab at WRL is a state of the art facility that will enable my team to help address these urgent questions

A/Prof Denis O'Carroll

UNSW has recently opened a new Biogeochemistry Laboratory at its Water Research Laboratory (WRL) in Manly Vale, which will support A/Prof O’Carroll’s research as well as WRL’s continued excellence in field-based geochemistry studies.

 The new lab at WRL is a state of the art facility that will enable my team to help address these urgent questions,” said A/Prof O’Carroll. 

The Australian Department of Employment and Workplace Relations has recommended that the Australian Government act proactively to protect the health of its community with regards to nanotechnology. Meanwhile, the State of California recently completed a data call-In where it required all Carbon Nanotube (CNT) manufacturers to provide data related to their properties and current disposal practices, due to concerns related to negative impacts of CNTs for both the environment and public.

Given the widespread global concern pertaining to the potential impacts of ENPs, A/Prof O’Carroll’s research is fundamental. With the help of the new laboratory, along with other resources such as the Mark Wainwright Analytical Centre, UNSW-GWI has all the infrastructure and equipment needed to help make significant strides in this field.