GAINESVILLE, Fla. University of Florida engineering student Maria Palazuelos is working on nanotechnology, but she's not seeking a better sunscreen, tougher golf club or other product the focus of many engineers in the field.
Instead, Palazuelos, a doctoral student in chemical engineering, is probing the potentially harmful effects of nanotechnology by testing how ultra-small particles may adversely affect living cells, organisms and the environment. But this is no scene from a Michael Crichton's novel "Prey" about nanotechnology run amok. Rather, this is a real-world endeavor grounded in solid science.
"We don't want to look back in 50 years if something bad has happened and say, 'why didn't we ask these questions?'" Palazuelos said.
Palazuelos is a member of a small interdisciplinary group of UF faculty members and students, the UF Nanotoxicology Group, whose work is rapidly becoming more timely as manufacturers increasingly turn to the super-small tubes, cylinders and other nanoparticles at the heart of nanotechnology.
There are already more than 400 companies worldwide that tap nanoparticles and other forms of nanotechnology, and regulatory agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Food and Drug Administration and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration are closely examining whether new regulations are needed to guard against potentially harmful but currently unknown effects, said Kevin Powers, associate director of UF's National Science Foundation Particle Engineering Research Center. These agencies are turning to university researchers for help in making those kinds of determinations, he said.
"Before we start producing these materials in large quantities to go into everyday products, we should know what effect they have on our health and the environment," he said.