Mark Wiesner: Making Nanotechnology Safe - Engineer studies the consequences of going small

October 26, 2006

By Rachel Adelson

Wiesner Durham, NC -- Mark Wiesner wants to save the planet, one molecule at a time. A nanotechnology expert who joined Duke this semester as a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering, Wiesner is committed to managing the environmental risks of a growing industrial revolution before any damage is done.

Wiesner was among the first people to call attention to the way that production and use of new nanomaterials -- which are measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter -- could potentially harm human health and the environment. For example, there's mixed evidence on whether carbon-based nanomaterials known as fullerenes -- popularly called "buckyballs" because of their shape and in homage of Buckminster Fuller, their discoverer -- might hold unexpected health threats. Nanoparticles are so tiny they could slip through protective filters, whether in the human respiratory system or a water treatment system. And that, some scientists argue, could possibly cause problems.

Wiesner believes that early investigation can ensure that nanoscale materials become real-life assets instead of liabilities when released into the environment. Such early precaution hasn't always been the case in industry, he says, citing the belated realizations that industrial breakthroughs -- for example, with ozone-busting chlorofluorocarbons and the biologically persistent pesticide DDT -- often have had unintended negative consequences.

Wiesner, a Nebraska native, earned his doctorate at Johns Hopkins University and comes to Duke from Rice University, in Houston, with stops along the way in France and Germany. Among his research interests, he studies membranes (central to clean water, which is central to good health), nanostructured materials and what technologists call the "transport and fate" of nanomaterials.

His work comes together in the lab that the one-time music major orchestrates in the basement of Hudson Hall -- a location that affords Wiesner a nice sense of continuity. "As a kid, I had a chemistry lab in the basement," he says. "That's where it's been ever since."

He and his laboratory colleagues hope to improve the overall understanding of the impact that nanomaterials have on the environment. The researchers also will explore what Wiesner calls the "inseparability" of water treatment and energy technologies -- one of his fascinations. He gives the example of a fuel cell, which can both generate energy and deliver water as a byproduct.

Wiesner is starting his Duke teaching career with a course titled "Physical Chemical Processes." He emphasizes that the graduate course also is open to undergraduates, because "we want to encourage our undergraduates to take entry-level graduate courses in environmental engineering," he says. "These courses are very suitable for them."

As a teacher, Wiesner says he enjoys seeing how engineering projects "tend to turn students on. Sometimes it's the first time they can approach a problem with a certain amount of sophistication.

"Duke is sort of a Disneyland of environmental expertise," he adds, citing half a dozen departments and institutes whose interdisciplinary work meshes well with his specialty. "Everyone seems to understand that environmental criteria should play a role in decisions across the board -- legal, business, medical, scientific."

Outside the lab, Wiesner is enjoying the area's natural beauty and what he calls his "first real fall in 18 years."

Back in his basement lair, Wiesner continues to study life on a smaller scale -- and to keep pace with an industry projected to be valued at roughly a trillion dollars by 2020.

And he bears in mind that nanotechnologies have a lot to offer: On the plus side, they may help technologists to minimize emissions of carbon dioxide, which is widely thought to promote global warming, and the use of volatile organic compounds that can pose health hazards.

"We can make great things, but we have to be careful about the impacts," Wiesner stresses. "My biggest fear is that we just don't ask the question."