Are nanoparticles safe?

After two decades of research the first wave of nanotechnology consumer products are entering the marketplace in applications as diverse as catalysts, surface treatments for glass, cosmetics and drug delivery. But the properties that make them attractive to industry may also have unforeseen consequences. That worries Amanda Barnard, a physicist at The University of Melbourne.

Amanda Barnard (Graphic by Amanda Barnard. Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo)
Amanda Barnard (Graphic by Amanda Barnard. Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo)

“Many materials that are normally inactive—gold and silver, for example—become biologically active when the particles are just a few nanometres in size. So, if we are creating these new particles we need to understand how they will behave in the environment.”

Amanda believes she can create a theoretical framework that will allow the risk of nanoparticles to be determined in the computer—before the particle has even been made. She will use her L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship to develop new computational tools to predict the behaviour of nanoparticles in the environment.

Amanda first trained and worked as a gemmologist—looking in particular at diamonds and the difference between synthetic and natural diamonds. The experience fuelled her interest in physics and the rules that guide the creation of materials.

After obtaining a PhD in physics from RMIT, she went first to the Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, then to Oxford where she investigated the safety of nanoparticles and wrote a commentary on nano-hazards for Nature Materials.

She returned to Australia in 2008 to take up a Future Generation Fellowship at The University of Melbourne.

Amanda says that while nanoparticles are manufactured, stored and used under carefully controlled conditions, it’s what happens to them when they are eventually discarded into landfill and waterways, under anything but controlled conditions, that is the big question.

Amanda Barnard interview. Download audio interview here (mp3, 1.9MB)

“Many man-made nanoparticles do not exist in nature. So we don’t know their long term effects or how they will interact with living organisms,” she says. But with the rapid pace of development of new nanoparticles, there are just too many to physically test under all likely conditions.

“I’m planning to build theoretical models to try to predict how the particles will behave in a wide range of chemical environments. I hope my work will help make nanoparticles safer,” Amanda says.

Amanda will start with a theoretical model to predict the stability of nanoparticles in the presence of water. She’ll initially focus on metal nanoparticles containing platinum and palladium, which are showing great promise as catalysts to increase fuel efficiency.

Amanda Barnard simulation image (Graphic by Amanda Barnard. Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo).
Amanda Barnard simulation image (Graphic by Amanda Barnard. Photo credit: L’Oréal/SDP Photo).

Her theoretical model will look at the effects of temperature, pressure and particle size and shape on the behaviour of nanoparticles, especially their stability. It builds on past work she has done to develop a theory relating the size and shape of a wide range of different nanostructures to their stability.

Amanda will access the powerful computers she needs through the Australian Partnership for Advanced Computing (APAC) national facility and the Victorian Partnership for Advance Computing (VPAC). Her L’Oréal Fellowship will be used to purchase the software she needs to generate inputs for her models and analyse the resulting data.

Amanda hopes that her theoretical models will prove useful to nanotechnology researchers worldwide.

“We have a wonderful opportunity to learn from history here and not make the same mistakes we’ve made in the past with asbestos and DDT.”

“Over the long term I hope that researchers around the world will be able to use my tools to predict the stability of their nanoparticles before they make them,” she says.

Biographical details

2003                PhD (Physics), RMIT University: Theoretical condensed ______________matter physics/nanoscience
2001                Bachelor of Science (Applied Physics), First Class ______________Honours, RMIT University

Career highlights, awards, fellowships and grants

2008                Inaugural Future Generation Fellowship, The                       ______________University of Melbourne
2005                Extraordinary Junior Research Fellowship, The Queen’s ______________College, Oxford, UK
2005                Violette & Samuel Glasstone Fellowship, University of ______________Oxford, UK
2004                Innovation Award (Student Category), RMIT University
2004                University Research Prize, RMIT University
2003                CNM Distinguished Postdoctoral Fellowship, Argonne ______________National Laboratory, USA
2002                Australian Postgraduate Award (APA), Federal ______________Government Scholarship
2001                Greg Anderson Memorial Award, RMIT University
2000                Walter Boas Memorial Prize, RMIT University
1999                A.K. & D.A Connor Award, RMIT University
1998                Stanley Martin Memorial Prize, RMIT University
1996                Sutherland Diamond Medallion, Gemmological ______________Association of Australia