Chemists search for ways to use and dispose of tiny particles

By Tatum Lyles Flick
Communications Specialist

Tiny particles, known as nanomaterials, can wreak havoc on biological systems or even be used to help support them, depending on chemical composition and the environment’s ability to handle each substance.

“Naturally occurring nanomaterials, like sand, are things to which our bodies and the environment have adapted,” said UW-Madison professor of chemistry and NSF Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) director Robert Hamers. “Engineered nanomaterials have not been in the environment for a long time, so biological systems have not adapted to challenges they present, leaving the potential for greater environmental impacts.”

The CSN focuses on fundamental science and involves collaboration between researchers at UW-Madison, 10 other universities, and two government labs who apply what is learned, work to mitigate problems associated with nanomaterials, such as lithium ion batteries and other electronic waste, and who design and synthesize nanomaterials which may offer benefits to the environment, such as those that improve plant health and reduce the need for pesticides and fungicides.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) Division of Chemistry will fund the research for another five years through a $20 million grant.

“The NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCIs) are transforming the way we do science by engaging interdisciplinary, multi-institutional teams to take on grand challenges in the field,” said David Berkowitz, Division Director of Chemistry. “The Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, one of the CCIs, is performing important research that will guide the development of sustainable nanotechnologies, a key element of the industries of the future.”

The center is focused on science, outreach and workforce development, serving as a strong professional development program for training graduate students, and with a focus on improving diversity in higher education.

Other Department of Chemistry personnel who work on the project include: professors Randy Goldsmith and Joel Pedersen and Dr. Mike Schwartz, the center’s managing director.