Manufactured nanomaterials are in all types of commercial and industrial products—from diesel fuels, fabrics to cosmetics—and their unique characteristics could have a serious impact on our environment and food supply. Nanomaterials are materials comprised of extremely small nanoparticles which are measured using the nanoscopic scale. (For reference, a nanometer is a billionth of a meter.) These tiny materials have beneficial, unique characteristics, such as spider silk’s incredible strength, or the ability to kill bacteria that make them desirable. When manufactured nanomaterials first became common in consumer products in the mid-2000’s, studies focused on how they enter and impact the watershed. Now researchers are realizing nanomaterials may be having a wider effect on the environment.
One of the major concerns of nanomaterials entering the environment is their impact on our food supply. When crops come into contact with them in high levels will they be able to break them down upon absorption? Researchers are studying what effect retained nanomaterials may have on the plants and subsequently the entire food chain.
One crop that is of particular concern is soybean, the largest ingredient of animal feed and an important ingredient in many of our foods. Soybeans are also one of the United States' major exports and are touted for their sustainability. Soybeans, along with being a critical part of our food supply, act like a natural fertilizer and can be ground up and mixed into soil.
"This is a very exciting time to be a researcher in this dynamic field of environmental chemistry. There is no question that PerkinElmer instrumentation has been critical to our nanometrology studies."
Studying Nanomaterials' Impact on Soybean Plants
The Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) released a study on the effects of metal oxide nanoparticles on soybeans like zinc oxide and cerium oxide, commonly found in commercial sunscreens and cosmetics. Using a PerkinElmer ICP-OES, the researchers were able to measure size, size distribution, surface characteristics, shape, and chemical composition of the particles. Different manufactured nanoparticles (MNP) will have different properties and will therefore behave very differently when they enter the environment, so it is very clear, the analytical techniques must be able to detect nanoparticles with high specificity and extreme sensitivity.
The results of the study were that the zinc oxide, which can be dangerous when consumed or inhaled, was broken down to zinc, which is an essential trace element for human consumption. However, the cerium oxide was not broken down and remained a manufactured nanoparticle when it was absorbed.
The cerium oxide impacted the development of the soybean plants and led to a lower yield of the crop, and also affected the plant's ability to act as a natural fertilizer. The damage to the plant's use as a fertilizer poses a broad risk to the food chain because it would result in an increased demand for synthetic fertilizer.
Previous research has also suggested cerium oxide may not be safe for human consumption, although no specific risks have yet been proven.
A Growing Field of Research
As nanomaterials become more common in commercial and industrial products, research on their effects on the environment is becoming more important. "This is a very exciting time to be a researcher in this dynamic field of environmental chemistry," says Professor Jorge Gardea-Torresdey, PhD, chair of the Department of Chemistry at UTEP. "There is no question that PerkinElmer instrumentation has been critical to our nanometrology studies."