By Michelle Fredrickson, Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture

chowdhuryPULLMAN, Wash. – Nanoscale materials are helping provide new and better products for society, but researchers know little about what happens when these materials break down in the environment.

Indranil Chowdhury, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Washington State University, has received a grant to investigate how nanomaterials degrade in the aquatic environment. He hopes to come up with nanomaterials for industry that are effective and safe.

Richard Watts, professor of civil and environmental engineering, is involved in the project and the WSU Stormwater Center in Puyallup, Wash., is supporting the effort.

Indranil Chowdhury, right, and graduate student Mehnaz Shams are among the WSU researchers investigating the degradation of graphene.

In particular, the researchers are investigating graphene, a class of carbon-based nanomaterials commonly used in the automobile, electronics and aviation industries. As a single atomic layer, graphene is lightweight and highly conductive.

“But for all the good things about nanomaterials, there are some bad things, too,” Chowdhury said.

While graphene is not dangerous, it may become hazardous when it degrades. Preliminary studies show that it transforms into organic chemicals called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, some of which are known to be carcinogenic.

Release of nanomaterials into surface water through industry effluent is not regulated.

Chowdhury and Watts will track factors, such as sunlight, that influence graphene’s degradation in the aquatic environment. The researchers will investigate degradation in water from the Columbia River and identify the mechanisms of how graphene changes under different conditions.

The grant is from the U.S. Geological Survey through the State of Washington Water Research Center.