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Understanding Nanomaterials In The Environment

September 27, 2016

Understanding Nanomaterials


Nanoparticles are everywhere. They are used to coat clothing to make them waterproof, microbicidal, or antistatic. It is estimated that there are about 1,600 other consumer products, such as cosmetics, toothpastes and even some foods that contain organic, incidental, and manufactured nanomaterials that are capable of  being inhaled, swallowed, or applied onto skin. 1

Nanoparticles (NPs) are so small, that even detecting them—let alone determining their characteristics—can be a challenge. Measuring from 1 to 100 billionth of a meter, these molecular-sized particles are released into the environment by everything from volcanic dust and decomposing plants and animals (organic nanoparticles), to diesel exhaust, mining, tyre wear (incidental nanoparticles), and more recently manufactured nanomaterials used in medicines, optics, car parts, electronics, and even some foods. 2

Since NPs contain common elements and compounds that can have a variety of effects, scientists, health agencies, and legislators are increasingly interested in determining whether nanomaterials may have an impact on our health and the environment. 3

FENAC: Educator, Facilitator, Innovator

Its name is a mouthful: Facility for Environmental Nanoscience Analysis and Characterization. Most people just call it FENAC. Founded in 2009 as a new analytical facility with funding from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and based at the School of Geography, Earth, and Environmental Science at the University of Birmingham in the UK, FENAC focuses on research into the biological and environmental behavior of nanoparticles under realistic conditions.

As a pioneer in nanoparticle research, FENAC provides students, academic researchers, and industrial scientists with an impressive array of analytical instrumentation and in-house expertise.

“Our goal is to determine specific behaviors of NPs that will help identify their potential toxicity factors, lead to more informed legislation, and ultimately assist in designing inherently safer nanomaterials for both the environment and for people,” says Professor Eugenia Valsami-Jones, Professor of Environmental Nanoscience at the University of Birmingham and Director of FENAC.

To do that, Valsami-Jones says that FENAC provides a controlled environment where scientists and students have access to the latest separation, microscopic and spectroscopic material characterization equipment. These include an assortment of high-powered imaging and X-ray diffraction (XRD) analytical instruments that provide real-time sub-nano resolution imaging. Also available are a range of spectroscopy techniques, including ICP-OES and ICP-MS. 4

With its primary focus on NP characterization, training, and research into the environmental impact and potential applications of NPs, FENAC is available to academics and industrial researchers through a semi-annual competitive process. Through the years, FENAC has guided these scientists to complete dozens of successful research projects, which have earned the facility global recognition as a nanoparticle characterization center of excellence. 5 It is also regarded as a major European research facility, led by scientists involved in flagship EU projects. These include the NanoDefine Project, which aims to “reliably identify, characterize, and quantify nanomaterials (NM) both as substances and in various products and matrices,” 6 and the NanoMILE project, which is coordinated by Valsami-Jones and aims to establish a fundamental understanding of the mechanisms of nanomaterial interactions with living systems and the environment and develop a framework of nanomaterial classification according to their biological or environmental impacts. 7

A Blossoming Collaboration

It is in this last-mentioned space that PerkinElmer is helping FENAC make a huge difference for researchers. With the acquisition of a PerkinElmer Optima® 8000 ICP-OES and two PerkinElmer NexION® 350D ICP-MS, FENAC is now able to measure high and low concentrations of a wide range of elements in the same run in parts per billion and parts per trillion.

“That ability is vital to our ongoing studies,” Valsami-Jones says. “Nanoparticles are so reactive, and many of those reactions are still poorly understood and yet crucial to the way they may impact organisms and the environment,” she says. “That is why it is so important that we know what those reactions are, even though they occur at a scale we struggle to observe with our current instruments. With the development of single-particle ICP-MS, we are pushing the frontiers of analytical science and expand our panoply of techniques which enable us to study processes at the nanoscale”.

A New Kind Of Understanding

In a 2014 study of nanosilver’s impact on the environment, FENAC’s research using the NexION® 350D ICP-MS played a major role in demonstrating that silver nanoparticles transform in the environment, making their detection more complex. 8 In ongoing research at FENAC, the NexION® 350D ICP-MS’s single particle mode capability is also being used to determine the composition, shape, and size of individual NPs in studies of human exposure to atmospheric NPs. 9 The most important factor when measuring single particles is the speed at which data can be acquired. Since particle ionization events occur on the order of microseconds, the NexION® 350D ICP-MS’s single particle mode allows for rapid data acquisition and elimination of the settling time between measurements. That allows for multiple readings per particle ionization event, which results in more accurate size determinations. 10

Last year, FENAC acquired a PerkinElmer Optima® 8000 ICP-OES as part of an upgrade of the facility’s central services.

“The PerkinElmer Optima® 8000 ICP-OES provides chemical analysis for a wide range of elements in the concentration range of parts per million to parts per billion,” says Dr. Christine Elgy, FENAC’s manager. “The ICP-MS, meanwhile, extends that range from parts per billion to parts per trillion. This is very useful for measuring the metal dose in toxicity studies, identifying contaminants in rivers, and checking the pollution concentration in air samples.”

Equally important is the PerkinElmer NexION® 350D ICP-MS’s ability to trace metal detection over nine orders of magnitude, making it especially attractive to scientists working with trace metal and metal oxide nanoparticles.

“It measures the size of an individual particles, building up a size distribution, and crucially can distinguish between nanoparticles and dissolved material,” Elgy says, adding that this feature of the NexION® 350D ICP-MS’s single particle mode provides the concentration of both at the same time. “This is revolutionizing dissolution and agglomeration studies.”

What Lies Ahead

As FENAC continues to grow in capabilities, expertise, and international reputation it is proactively reaching out to further expand its nanomaterial characterization activities through more collaborative arrangements with industries throughout the UK, the EU, and beyond. In doing so, however, FENAC’s leadership remains committed to its role as educator, facilitator, and innovator in support of the scientific community working on nanoscale processes.


  1. Holly Cave, “The Nanotechnology In Your Clothes,” The Guardian, February 14, 2014.
  2. Lynn Charles Rathbun, “What is Nanotechnology?Nanozone, Nanozone.org., November 6, 2013.
  3. Holly Cave, op. cit.
  4. FENAC, “FENAC characterization facilities,” University of Birmingham.
  5. Facility for Environmental Nanoscience Analysis and Characterization, “Services & Facilities Annual Report," April 2014 to March 2015.
  6. European Union, “NanoDefine Project Summary,” European Union NanoDefine Project.
  7. European Union, NanoMILE project.
  8. Facility for Environmental Nanoscience Analysis and Characterization, “Services & Facilities Annual Report, April 2014 to March 2015,” op. cit.
  9. Juana Maria Delgado-Saborit, “Development Of A Novel Biomarker Of Exposure To Iron Nanoparticles In Urine And Exhaled Breath Condensate Samples Using Single Particle Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry,” (ongoing research), University of Birmingham, 2015.
  10. Chady Stephan, Ken Neubauer, “Single Particle Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry: Understanding How and Why,” White Paper, PerkinElmer,2014.

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