Environmental Nanoscience

Investigating metal concentrations in nanoparticle samples

Nanoscience is the science at the nanoscale, where ‘nano’ refers to processes that occur on the size range between 1 and 100 nm. At this length scale, material properties can be dominated by size-dependent features, such as quantum confinement and surface plasmon resonance.

In simple terms, within the nanoscale materials can behave in novel and unexpected ways. Furthermore, due to their very small size, the surface area of nanomaterials is exceptionally high, a feature that also alters their properties enormously, and leads to high reactivity, and a large area for binding of biomolecules and other environmental entities.  These properties can be exploited for all sorts of applications such as environmental remediation, sensing and controlled delivery or capture of pesticides and other high value chemicals.

In addition to all the potential applications of nanomaterials in the environment, it is possible that the novel physicochemical properties of nanomaterials described above may also lead to toxicity developing in novel or unexpected ways. A new research area, nano(eco)toxicology, has emerged in recent years, aiming to elucidate the toxicity potential of nanomaterials, linked to their physico-chemical characteristics and their interactions with, and bioavailability to, organisms.

Scientists at Birmingham are international leaders in the field of nanotoxicology and play a leading role in the translation of scientific advances towards the regulation of nano-enabled products. We coordinate or participate in a number of EU (FP7 and Horizon2020) funded projects including: NanoMILE, FutureNanoNeeds, NanoFASE, EcofriendlyNano, NanoDefine, QNanoNanoValid and MARINA. We are also involved in UK NERC-funded projects as well as other national and international initiatives.

We carry out our work in state-of-the-art analytical facilities in Birmingham, including the NERC-funded FENAC (Facility for Environmental Nanoscience Analysis and Characterisation).

Research areas include:

  • Engineered nanomaterial synthesis and characterization, covering a very wide range of metals and metal oxides, as well as polymers and coatings and the development of reliable and reproducible synthesis protocols (Valsami-Jones and Lynch)
  • Engineered nanomaterial behaviour in aqueous media, particularly in terms of the effects on solubility and agglomeration of media organic and inorganic components; formation of 'environmental coronas' and ageing of nanoparticles (Valsami-Jones and Lynch)
  • Development of libraries of reference nanomaterials for nanotoxicology (Valsami-Jones and Lynch)
  • Stable isotope labeled nanomaterials synthesis and characterization; nanoparticles currently available include Ag, ZnO and CuO (Valsami-Jones)
  • Interaction of a variety of nano-objects with biota in vitro and in vivo, where the primary focus is to assess the sensitivity of different tests and provide better tools to assess toxicity (Valsami-Jones and Lynch)
  • Understanding the role of proteins and other macromolecules in mediating nanoparticle uptake by and impact on biological systems, including biofilms, daphnia and cells (Lynch)
  • Method development related to single-particle detection including via Sp-ICP-MS ((Valsami-Jones and Lynch)
  • Regulatory aspects such as the definition of nanomaterials, nanopesticides, nanomaterials in food, nanoparticle ontologies etc. (Lynch)
  • Quantitative structure/property-activity relationships (QSARs) and approaches to grouping and read-across (Lynch and Valsami-Jones)
  • Molecular simulations of nanoparticle reactivity particularly in order to develop a better understanding of toxicity (Valsami-Jones)
  • Development of nanosensors for measurements of pH and chemical compositions at micrometer scale (Shi, Valsami-Jones, Lead)
  • Nanoparticles in atmospheric depositions (dust, rainwater) and their role in controlling the bioavailability of biogeochemically important nutrients and trace metals to the marine microorganisms (Shi)
  • Maturation and ageing in biominerals and understanding such processes at the nano-level, focusing particularly on bioapatites (Valsami-Jones)
  • Applications of nanomaterials and biomaterials (e.g. biochar) for environmental remediation (Lynch)