Scientists at Cranfield University are developing a sensor to detect airborne nanoparticles.
Prof Robert Dorey, head of Cranfield’s Microsystems and Nanotechnology Centre, explained to The Engineer that sensors to detect microsized particles already exist but the increased use of nanoparticles has driven the need to develop the new device.
‘We are trying to make a sensor that incorporates a layered coating that responds to nanomaterials that come into contact with it and counts how many there are in a given area,’ he said.
The exact composition of the layer and the way the sensor will be calibrated is subject to a patent application but Dorey did say that stationary and portable versions would be produced.
He added that manufacturers who work with nanomaterials and environmental groups would use the sensors.
Nanomaterials are used in products including suntan lotion, composites, wind turbine components, cars and sports equipment.
‘The interesting thing is how much of the nanomaterials we’re using to make things get through to the environment,’ commented Dr Sophie Rocks, a lecturer in nanotoxicology at Cranfield.
‘Nanomaterials could go anywhere. They can go between the human cells, enter into cells, and they could go past the blood-brain barrier,’ she explained.
The specific health hazards that nanoparticles present are unclear. This is largely because there is no current way of measuring the number of nanoparticles in the human body or, for that matter, distinguishing between naturally occurring nanoparticles and engineered nanoparticles.
However, one study suggested that carbon nanotubes could express similar behaviour to asbestos fibres and cause inflammation of the lungs if they are inhaled in large quantities.
It is also possible that silver nanoparticles could pass into the gut and interfere with the passage of nutrients into the body.
‘A lot of these nanoparticles have been exposed to humans since the beginning of time. However, we’re producing more and more,’ said Rocks.
‘Experts think there will be a production of 1019 tonnes per annum by 2015 based on a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering released in 2004,’ she continued.
Cranfield is currently offering a PhD studentship to assist with the development of the sensor with industrial partners Casella Measurement, which has expertise in measuring atmospheric dust levels.
The sensor is expected to be at the working prototype stage within three years.