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UW Professor Receives NSF Grant to Study Nanoparticles in Drinking Water

November 4, 2011

By Kali McCrackin, UW journalism student

Jonathan Brant, assistant professor in the University of Wyoming Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering, received a $300,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study the ability of water treatment plants to remove manufactured nanomaterials from drinking water.

Manufactured nanomaterials have a variety of uses ranging from cosmetics to building materials, and yet the effects of this technology on the environment and humans are largely unknown, Brant says.

"The behaviors of manufactured nanoparticles in water treatment systems are not completely understood, and the concern is how many of these materials end up in drinking water," he says.

Manufactured nanomaterials are tiny, microscopic particles with unique properties, such as being unaffected by gravity, which engineers and scientists use to develop materials and products. The use of these materials continues to expand, and Brant says nanotechnology is predicted to become a trillion-dollar enterprise in the future.

Because of the expansion and the wealth this technology holds, understanding potential hazards is essential. In Brant's research, the focus is on determining how well existing water treatment systems can serve as a barrier to different manufactured nanomaterials.

"Some nanoparticles have been found to be extremely toxic to a variety of aquatic life and human cell lines," Brant says. "But it is not known for certain, and more research continues to be conducted on the toxicity."

Graduate student Erik Pfeiffer is assisting with the research.

"We are using nanoparticle materials more and more every day without being aware of their impact on the human body and environment, and without knowing how easily they can be removed," Pfeiffer says.

After their three years of research, Brant and Pfeiffer aim to better understand the overall risk posed by manufactured nanomaterials.

"The consumption of water is the biggest exposure route of pollutants to individuals," Brant says. "Our research aims to determine how safe drinking water is when it comes to manufactured nanomaterials."

Research into manufactured nanomaterials is relatively new, but it is a concern internationally. Over the course of their research, Brant and Pfeiffer will work with the Centre Europeen de Researche et d'Enseignement des Geosciences de l'Environment (CEREGE) in France.

"We are partnering with researchers at the CEREGE to take advantage of their expertise in nanomaterial characterization and synthesis, which will be critical to understanding the nanomaterial behavior in water," Brant says. "We hope that through this collaboration we will develop a successful student exchange between the University of Wyoming and the CEREGE."

In addition to the research, the NSF grant includes an outreach project to visit Wyoming high schools to interest students in environmental engineering and get them excited about careers in this field. Ryan Kobbe, a UW Department of Civil and Architectural Engineering lecturer, leads the effort. Basic water treatment processes will be demonstrated during the lectures.

"We hope that once students see how basic engineering principles can be used to develop real-life solutions to everyday problems such as cleaning drinking water, they will begin to consider environmental engineering as a possible career," Brant says.

"Funding of these types of projects is a proactive approach by environmental regulators," Brant says. "We are seeking to prevent potential problems before they affect the public."

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