Nanomaterials and the environment

Professor Enzo Lombi

As new technologies are developed, new environmental risks can emerge and new types of waste is produced. Environmental Scientist, Professor Enzo Lombi, is investigating if manufactured nanomaterials have any effect on the Australian environment, and how potential damage can be prevented.

Thousands of every-day consumer products now contain engineered nanomaterials, for example; sunscreens, shampoos, room fresheners, laundry products, textiles and biomedical products. Engineered nanomaterials are made to take on unique optical, magnetic, electrical and other properties to deliver a specific benefit. We can buy sunscreens made with nanoparticles designed to reflect and scatter UV radiation, buy socks made with nanoparticles which have anti-microbial properties so that the socks smell less and require fewer washes, and consume nice looking sugared donuts containing titanium dioxide nanoparticles which help prevent sugar clumping.

As well as using nanomaterials in products we wear and eat, they are also being increasingly used to improve our health. The emerging field of nanomedicine is, for example, bringing us new targeted drug delivery systems, and new biomaterials such as wound dressings which incorporate silver nanoparticles to prevent infection and improve the healing process.

“While the benefits of using engineered nanomaterials are clear, the potential associated costs and risks of their use and misuse are, to a large extent still unknown,” Prof Lombi says.

Prof Lombi is seeking to identify any new risks by modelling the various pathways in which different nanoparticles can find their way into the Australian environment.

“The most common way this happens is via the waste-water system. After treatment, wastewater produces bio-solids which can be used in agriculture as fertilisers, and “recycled” water used in agriculture and for watering parklands.

“By determining what happens to the nanoparticles during the treatment process – whether or not they transform into something else along the way - we are able to develop methods for detecting what ends up in the environment, even at extremely low concentration levels.”

Prof Lombi is working closely with other UniSA researchers who are developing these beneficial nanomaterial products – in conjunction with stakeholders - to ensure they continue to be safe and sustainable.

“Our research will also inform nanotechnologists so that new materials are safe by design and pose no real threat to the environment.

“As new technologies evolve, new nanomaterials are developed. We will continue our extensive testing on the environment, and our close partnership with other researchers and stakeholders.”

Future directions for Prof Lombi's research include the use of nanotechnology in Australia’s agricultural industry in the areas of plant nutrition and soil fertility.

Prof Lombi believes this is an important area of growth, and one which has the potential to advance output, improve soil health, and reduce environmental pollution.

“For example, new fertilisers based on nanotechnology will penetrate plants better, or sustain the supply of nutrients throughout the growing cycles, with the result of improving the effective amount of essential nutrients in staple food crops such as wheat.”

Prof Lombi works with industry and government partners to ensure his research findings are relevant, and disseminated quickly and easily to industry and government stakeholders. This ensures the pathway from UniSA’s state-of-the-art research laboratories to improvements in industrial, medical and agricultural production is a short one.