Skip to content

Smaller, Stronger, Safer?

The Lorry I. Lokey Laboratories lie far beneath a small grassy oasis on the UO campus, embedded in a hollowed out vault of bedrock 17-feet deep.

A blue-lit hallway leading to laboratoriesThe scientists here don’t come for the isolation, but rather for protection—from the vibration of the bustling traffic above on Franklin Boulevard and even the constant hum of climate control systems. The facility’s $25 million in souped-up electron microscopes and other devices make it possible to manipulate, measure and construct nanoparticles: substances so miniscule that even the slightest tremor can disrupt an experiment.

“In size, nanomaterials are somewhere between the micron scale and the molecular scale,” said UO chemist Jim Hutchison. “The materials we are
studying don't exist in the natural world and have new properties that are
fascinating to research.”

A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, only about ten times bigger than a single atom. A common way to envision this almost unfathomable smallness is to compare it to a human hair—which is typically 50,000 nanometers wide. The average particle being studied in the Lokey Labs might be two to 50 nanometers wide.

But they still pack a punch. Because of their tiny size, they possess unique physical properties and interact with other substances in ways bigger molecules don’t. This has led to an upsurge in nanotechnology, and many are heralding it as the future of the economy. More than 700 nano products are currently in use: everything from particles that make tennis rackets and golf clubs lighter and stronger to nano silver particles that prevent hospital-borne infection.

Yet as the industry begins to blossom, there are questions whether it’s doing so too quickly with too few restraints. As the founding director of the Safer Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing Initiative, Hutchison is at the forefront of efforts to ensure these questions about nano are answered and that action is taken before it becomes a ubiquitous technology.

Hutchison is also a pioneer in green chemistry, a revolutionary reshaping of his field into one dedicated to environmental consciousness. He co-created the very first green chemistry curriculum at the UO, and in nanotechnology he sees a way to use green chemistry to proactively prevent hazardous outcomes.

“We know that there are new properties associated with the nanoscale, so it’s reasonable to assume that there are new hazards,” Hutchison said. “It’s our goal here to anticipate the hazards, understand them and design them out of the materials.”

In the lab on a day last spring, Hutchison hunkered down at a pair of monitors examining a neon blue image of a zebrafish that was captured by an incredibly powerful electron microscope. Little yellow specks, representing gold nanoparticles, were dappled around the edges of the fish.

The purpose of the experiment was to see where the nanoparticles go once they’re ingested by the transparent zebrafish. Hutchison has been creating catalogues of data on how different nanoparticles interact with biological systems and if they interact in a harmful way, what factors might mitigate that.

“It makes sense from an environmental perspective as well as a business perspective to do this work,” he said. “It’s essential to learn what products are doing at the nano level, in order to protect the environment and society as well as manufacturers’ investment in nanotechnology.”

In the past, industry absorbed exorbitant costs for chemicals that turned out to be toxic well after they had become widely used, DDT and thalidomide being prime examples. Some are concerned that nanomaterials could produce the next horror story. Health advocates are especially skittish about their use in food products, and there is research that seems to indicate certain nano-related products could be carcinogenic.

Hutchison said the controversy most likely stems from the fact that nanomaterials are hard to characterize and structurally define. And because they are so difficult to manufacture and prone to imperfections, possible impurities or shoddy construction could be more problematic than the nanomaterials themselves.

“That’s why this lab is so useful: we can define these materials in a really rigorous and pristine way,” he said. “It all comes down to: how do you design the products so that they have the function you want without the detrimental properties?”

He and his colleagues are also interested in greening the production of nanomaterials. One of the lab’s most commonly cited papers was written after a student found an alternative method for creating gold nano particles. This process previously required the extensive use of a toxic gas that ignited into flames when exposed to the air.

“I used to have to stand by with a fire extinguisher,” Hutchison said. “Eventually, an undergraduate research student found a way to do the reaction on a workbench without any protection. It was safer and also cheaper.”

It’s a story that’s emblematic of how the green chemistry ethos is changing chemistry, and Hutchison believes nanotechnology provides a unique opportunity for green chemistry practitioners—to show that chemists have learned from their past mistakes.

“This is a chance to get it right from the beginning,” he said, “an opportunity that is extremely rare.” —Marc Dadigan

Online Extras

Troops and Their Music

A iPod iconlt's not all head-banger heavy metal on soldiers' play lists. Some prefer balladeers or even anti-war anthems from decades past.

The Irrational Economist

stockmarket.jpgLearn how our psychological reaction to genocide (or lack thereof) relates to the stock market crash.

A Telling Performance

LemuelCropped.jpgWatch the special D.C. performance of Telling where the cast, director and co-authors were greeted by Michelle Obama.

Many Dimensions of Green

SNNI_lowrescropped.jpgLearn how experts across disciplines are together advancing green chemistry.