The Facility for Environmental Nanoscience Analysis and Characterisation (FENAC) is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to support environmental nanoscience and nanotoxicology research in the UK.

FENAC is based in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Birmingham, with characterisation facilities in schools and research centres throughout the University. 

Access: Research access for universities and research institutes is funded by NERC, and competitive applications are assessed twice yearly. The projects must fall within the NERC remit. Academics and Commercial clients whose research falls outside the NERC remit can purchase access to the FENAC facilities.

Nanomaterials in the environment

Manufactured nanomaterials are used in a wide range of consumer products, manufacturing processes and medical applications. Products include cosmetics, sunscreens, paints, bandages and clothing.

Production of nanoparticles in the USA has been estimated at 8,000 - 40,000 tons per year for 5 materials.* Examples on manufactured nanomaterials include silver (Ag), titania (TiO2), ceria (CeO2), fullerenes (spheres made of C atoms) and carbon nanotubes (tubular structures made of C atoms).

It is inevitable that some of these will enter the environment.

Incidental nanomaterials arise as a result of human activity. Diesel exhausts, material worn as tyres by the road surface and mineral extraction wastes may all contain nanomaterials.

Natural nanoscale objects including minerals and organic nanoparticles, occur in the environment. Examples include ash clouds from volcanoes and decomposition products in water from plants and animals. Research in these areas covers topics including climate change and hazardous waste remediation.

Assessing the effects of nanomaterials on organisms in the environment

The effect of these materials on the environment and human health has not yet been fully established, and work at FENAC can support research into these areas.

Nanomaterials are similar in size to biological molecules which interact with cells. Measuring the effect of nanomaterials on organisms is not simple and the research published to date is inconsistent.  In order to assess the effects of nanomaterials on organisms and the environment their behaviour under well controlled and environmentally relevant conditions need to be assessed.

The following are examples of properties which may alter the behaviour of nanomaterials:

  • Chemical and structural composition of the nanomaterials
  • Their size and shape
  • Their surface area
  • Their structure and tendency to dissolve
  • Composition of the media in which the nanomaterials are suspended

Other important considerations are:

  • Are nanomaterials sufficiently well characterised to unambiguously assign a specific behaviour to a unique nanomaterial?
  • Are nanomaterials used in different studies identical?
  • Are nanomaterials found to behave in a certain way stable throughout the assessment period?
  • Can nanomaterials change with time ('age')?

It is important to have full characterisation of nanomaterials used in toxicity tests in order to:

  • Improve comparisons between toxicology studies
  • Identify factors influencing (eco)toxicity
  • Inform H&S legislation
  • Design inherently safe nanomaterials

Find out more about our characterisation facilities


*Reference: Hendren, C.O., Mesnard, X., Droge, J., et al. (2011) Estimating Production Data for Five Engineered Nanomaterials as a Basis for Exposure Assessment. Environmental Science & Technology, 45 (7): 2562-25