My watch list
my.chemeurope.com  
Login  

Nanoparticles remain unpredictable

20-Apr-2017

Thomas Kast

The researchers evaluated the experimental data published in the scientific literature using a network analysis. This analysis reveals which types of nanoparticles (blue) have been studied under which environmental conditions (red).

The way that nanoparticles behave in the environment is extremely complex. There is currently a lack of systematic experimental data to help understand them comprehensively, as ETH environmental scientists have shown in a large overview study. A more standardised approach would help to advance the research field.

The nanotech industry is booming. Every year, several thousands of tonnes of man-made nanoparticles are produced worldwide; sooner or later, a certain part of them will end up in bodies of water or soil. But even experts find it difficult to say exactly what happens to them there. It is a complex question, not only because there are many different types of man-made (engineered) nanoparticles, but also because the particles behave differently in the environment depending on the prevailing conditions.

Researchers led by Martin Scheringer, Senior Scientist at the Department of Chemistry and Applied Biosciences, wanted to bring some clarity to this issue. They reviewed 270 scientific studies, and the nearly 1,000 laboratory experiments described in them, looking for patterns in the behaviour of engineered nanoparticles. The goal was to make universal predictions about the behaviour of the particles.

Particles attach themselves to everything

However, the researchers found a very mixed picture when they looked at the data. “The situation is more complex than many scientists would previously have predicted,” says Scheringer. “We need to recognise that we can’t draw a uniform picture with the data available to us today.”

Nicole Sani-Kast, a doctoral student in Scheringer’s group and first author of the analysis published in the journal PNAS, adds: “Engineered nanoparticles behave very dynamically and are highly reactive. They attach themselves to everything they find: to other nanoparticles in order to form agglomerates, or to other molecules present in the environment.”

Network analysis

To what exactly the particles react, and how quickly, depends on various factors such as the acidity of the water or soil, the concentration of the existing minerals and salts, and above all, the composition of the organic substances dissolved in the water or present in the soil. The fact that the engineered nanoparticles often have a surface coating makes things even more complicated. Depending on the environmental conditions, the particles retain or lose their coating, which in turn influences their reaction behaviour.

To evaluate the results available in the literature, Sani-Kast used a network analysis for the first time in this research field. It is a technique familiar in social research for measuring networks of social relations, and allowed her to show that the data available on engineered nanoparticles is inconsistent, insufficiently diverse and poorly structured.

More method for machine learning

“If more structured, consistent and sufficiently diverse data were available, it may be possible to discover universal patterns using machine learning methods,” says Scheringer, “but we’re not there yet.” Enough structured experimental data must first be available.

“In order for the scientific community to carry out such experiments in a systematic and standardised manner, some kind of coordination is necessary,” adds Sani-Kast, but she is aware that such work is difficult to coordinate. Scientists are generally well known for preferring to explore new methods and conditions rather than routinely performing standardized experiments.

Facts, background information, dossiers
More about ETH Zürich
  • News

    Liquid shock absorbers

    Remarkable liquid materials called colloids stiffen under impact. Researchers funded by the SNSF have studied the effect of powerful impacts such as those produced by firearms or micrometeorites. At first glance, colloids resemble homogeneous liquids such as milk or blood plasma. But in fa ... more

    The world's shortest laser pulse

    ETH researchers succeeded in shortening the pulse duration of an X‑ray laser to only 43 attoseconds. With a time resolution in the range of a few quintillionths of a second, they are now able for the first time to observe the movement of electrons during chemical reactions in slow motion. I ... more

    Google provides open source library for quantum chemistry

    Since physicists have been dealing with the theoretical description of molecules, the solving of quantum mechanical equations has been a major obstacle. This is supposed to be a thing of the past with the release of an open source based system. Google has introduced such a system to the pub ... more

  • Videos

    Oxybromination of methane over vanadium phosphate

    ETH Zurich scientists have discovered a new catalyst that allows the easy conversion of natural gas constituents into precursors for the production of fuels or complex chemicals, such as polymers or pharmaceuticals. The new catalyst is extremely stable and results in fewer unwanted by-produ ... more

Your browser is not current. Microsoft Internet Explorer 6.0 does not support some functions on Chemie.DE