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National Science Foundation (NSF) awards EAGER grant to Antonia Statt, Qian Chen and Paul Braun to study micro- and nanoplastics in the environment

7/6/2020

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a two-year, $300,000 EAGER grant to professors of materials science and engineering Antonia Statt, Qian Chen, and Paul Braun for their project on mapping the structure–property relationship of micro- and nanoplastics by in-situ nanoscopic imaging and simulation. 

The NSF Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER) funding mechanism is used to support exploratory work in its early stages on untested, but potentially transformative, research ideas or approaches. The work of Braun, Chen, and Statt, who are all faculty members in the Materials Research Laboratory and the Beckman Institute, may be considered an especially "high risk-high payoff" in the sense that it, for example, involves radically different approaches, applies new expertise, or engages novel disciplinary or interdisciplinary perspectives. Braun, Chen, and Statt’s research specifically falls into the Critical Aspects of Sustainability Micro- and Nanoplastics category, which encourages the submission of proposals that tackle some of the fundamental scientific questions on the characterization, behavior, and impact of micro- and nanoplastics in the environment, including their impact on animal and human health, as well as their elimination from land and water systems.

This experiment?simulation collaboration specifically intends to understand micro- and nanoplastics, tiny pieces of plastics invisible to human eyes recently shown to be present throughout the food chain and environment. The unpredictable impact of micro- and nanoplastics on human health, the ecosystem and even the food we eat has led to skyrocketing concerns. Micro-plastics have been found everywhere from in the fish we eat to the air we breathe, in concentration spanning orders of magnitudes and in almost all imaginable shapes and forms. Because of their diversity in the natural world, the conventional toolkits for analyzing plastics based on statistical averaging simply do not work. Even less is known about the distribution of nanoplastics (particles smaller than 100 nm), which are just starting to be found for example in the water we drink. In one early interesting example, nanoplastics were found in tea made from plastic tea bags. Nanoplastics could be particularly worrisome for human health, because their sizes fall into a regime where they can enter living cells in humans, flow in the bloodstream and perhaps even arrive into our brains.

For these reasons, the team’s research goal is to introduce and use a tool that has not been utilized to study nano- and microplastics, liquid-phase transmission electron microscopy (TEM), to directly observe and understand the diversity of chemistries and structure of nano- and microplastics, and their behavior in water. Liquid-phase TEM is a method that encloses what can be considered a nano-aquarium containing micro- and nanoplastics in their native wet environment, capturing movies of their motion, interaction and aggregation on the fly. This information will then be used to inform predictive modeling. “Plastics in water” demos and lectures will be developed to disseminate important findings on the impact of nano- and microplastics on the environment to the general public, and most importantly to K-12 students at formative stages in their careers.