"Nanoparticles in the Environment: Challenges for Science and Policy"
Professor R. Lee Penn
Associate Professor of Chemistry
Institute on the Environment Residential Fellow

Nanotechnology and nanoscience hold great promise for solving some of the world’s grand challenges, including the production of safe, clean, and sustainable energy as well as a clean and safe drinking water supply, and the last decade has seen major advancements in these fields.  Nanomaterials have at least one dimension on the nanomenter lengthscale, which often results in their having unique reactivity and properties. Nanomaterials occur in a wide range of natural settings, ranging from magnetic nanoparticles contained within bacterial cells to precipitates forming at hydrothermal vents in the deep ocean. They are employed in engineered systems and commercial products, such as the silver nanoparticles used as antimicrobial agents in fabrics and bandages, nanoparticles used in personal care products like sunscreen, and nanomaterials incorporated in consumer electronics.

Large volumes of nanomaterials have been produced and incorporated into a wide variety of products and devices.  The certainty of continued and future releases of nanomaterials into the environment raises important concerns regarding their safety as well as their fate and transport in environmental systems. Indeed, anthropogenic nanoparticles have already been detected in surface waters and wastewater.  For example, wastewater generated by laundering can contain silver nanoparticles that have been released from fabrics containing such particles.


Sustainable nanotechnology requires proactive research to assess both the risks and the benefits of engineered nanomaterials to public health and the environment. The paucity of technical data and general uncertainty regarding unintentional consequences of engineered nanomaterials on public health, the environment, and ecosystems causes great concern amongst a wide range of communities. Fields like nanotoxicology, an emerging field that studies the toxicity of nanoparticles, and green chemistry, a field that strives for benign by design chemicals and materials, are poised for major impact.

Tuesday, March 25


180 Hubert H. Humphrey School

Refreshments Will Be Served