Researching the Complete Nanotube Picture

Distinguished Professor Somenath Mitra holding the flexible carbon-nanotube-based battery that he developed.

Carbon nanotubes are tiny structures with immense potential. One atom thick and about 10,000 times smaller than a human hair in diameter, they’re already being used in numerous consumer products ranging from cell phones to golf balls and medicines. They have the potential to advance technological progress in numerous fields, including the development of batteries and fuel cells, and an array of materials that are incredibly strong yet amazingly lightweight.

But do carbon nanotubes present a health hazard as they become more widespread in the world around us?

That’s the question that Distinguished Professor Somenath Mitra, Department of Chemistry and Environmental Science, intends to investigate with substantial help from a new $2.5 million, five-year grant awarded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, which is part of the National Institutes of Health. Mitra will share the grant with Professor Andrij Holian, director of the Center for Environmental Health Sciences at the University of Montana.

Mitra is very familiar with both the positive potential of nanomaterials and the questions their increasing use raises about the possibility of negative effects on health. He is the developer of a thin, flexible battery based on nanotube technology and has developed carbon-nanotube-based applications for solar cells, water treatment, and devices for environmental monitoring. But while the minute size of carbon nanotubes is the key to their utility in diverse applications, it may also present an environmental and health risk. Such nanomaterials can be absorbed from the environment as air or water pollutants and migrate throughout the body and infiltrate diverse types of tissue. These hair-like nanoparticles could pose the same kind of threat that has been the major issue with asbestos. . 

“Determining which characteristics and properties of carbon nanotubes cause human health effects is essential for improving our understanding of these materials, as well as for developing ‘green’ or safe applications. This is the overall objective of our effort,” says Mitra.