Environmental Nanoscale and Technology (ENT)

The Need for Research

Although a massive amount of effort has clearly been building in the area of nanoscience and technology worldwide, such is certainly not the case in the area of environmental nanoscience and technology. Recently, an independent report from the National Research Council stated that the nation is not paying enough attention to the environmental, health, and safety risks posed by nanoscale products. Unless these gaps are filled, the report warns, “the field’s great promise could evaporate in a cloud of public mistrust”. Similar points are being made in everything from the Washington Post to Time Magazine.

The picture is complicated by the fact that the diversity of nanomaterials, both now and especially in the future, is enormous, with tremendous variations in size, shape, composition, and surface chemistry. Our group responds to the challenge by trying to relate a vast array of nanomaterial properties to their potential environmental exposure, biological effects, and ecological consequences.

We believe that this strong interdisciplinary ICTAS-supported team can establish a firm, world-class presence in the field of environmental nanoscience and technology. This research will provide new approaches for the characterization and understanding of anthropogenic manufactured nanomaterials and their natural counterparts. It may result in methods for fast, real-time detection of both man-made and natural nanomaterials, and it will determine how manufactured nanoparticles transform in the environment. This, in turn, will help us understand their environmental fate and their health impacts, and lead to safer protocols for manufacturing processes and utilization.


Our vision is to become a center of excellence, recognized internationally for playing a leading role in environmental nanoscience research.


Our mission is two fold: 1) to better understand the nature, consequences, and fate of natural nanoparticles in the environment, and 2) to begin to understand the same for synthetic nanomaterials that, either intentionally or accidentally, get into the natural environment.

The Technical Approach

The Environmental Nanoscience and Technology (ENT) group uses advanced instrumentation housed in ICTAS, including our new FEI Titan high resolution TEM, FEI FIB, FESEM, environmental SEM, and Cameca ion probe, as well as an array of scanning probe microscopes to probe both synthetic nanomaterials in the laboratory and natural and synthetic nanomaterials sampled or collected in various field settings.

Quantification of exposure and release rates of nanomaterials in nanotechnology manufacturing facilities.
We can visit laboratories and industrial partners and quantify particle aerosolization during handling. Complete physical characterization can be achieved through continuous measurements of size, surface area, and mass. TEM analysis of samples can be done to determine shape, fractal dimension, and degree of aggregation. These parameters are critical for predicting the particles’ health impacts and fate in the environment.

Characterization of nanomaterials in the aqueous phase.
The aqueous phase characteristics of nanomaterial suspensions can be characterized using a combination of techniques currently employed by our nanoenvironmental science and engineering team. These techniques include dynamic light scattering (DLS), electrophoretic mobility, Raman spectroscopy, UV-VIS-NIR spectroscopy, FTIR spectroscopy, and potentiometric titrations.

Atmospheric transformations of nanomaterials.
We can conduct smog chamber experiments in which particles are exposed to ozone and other oxidants to study the atmospheric processing, or aging, of nanomaterials.

Iron oxides can exist in water in the fully dissolved, molecular form (left), or as iron oxide nanoparticles (center). The two TEM images on the right (upper right and middle) are naturally occurring iron oxide nanoparticles, and the bottom right shows a macroscopic specimen of the same phase.


Some of the ENT group members began to pioneer this field more than 15 years ago, and have raised many millions of dollars to pursue research. For example, researchers from geosciences and civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech are part of a consortium of four principal universities and two other schools awarded a multi-million dollar grant to study nanotechnology and the environment. This is one of only two such consortiums funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to form a national Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEIN). Total funding for the project is $14 million over five years with an opportunity to renew for another five. Virginia Tech’s portion of the grant is $1.75 million. Headquartered at Duke University, the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology will integrate the expertise of researchers in fields such as ecology, cell and molecular biology, geochemistry, environmental engineering, nanochemistry, and social science. In addition to Virginia Tech and Duke, the other schools involved in the project are Carnegie Mellon University and Howard University, with the University of Kentucky and Stanford University playing smaller but also important roles. A distinctive element of the center is the synthesis of the data into a risk assessment model and to transfer the results into the policy-making community and society at large.

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Contact Us

ICTAS (MC 0193)
Kelly Hall, Suite 410, Virginia Tech
325 Stanger Street
Blacksburg, VA 24061

(540) 231-2597