As scientists learn more about manipulating molecules at the atomic level, new and exciting materials are being developed to address society’s most pressing problems. But along with the thrill comes awesome responsibility.
“If there are properties of a new material we’re really excited about, are there also hazards we’re unaware of?” asks Kevin Ausman, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Boise State University who also is affiliated with the Department of Materials Science and Engineering. “And can we predict those hazards in a proactive rather than reactive way?”
These questions, originally posed by a research team Ausman was part of in 2000, set him on a path to a National Science Foundation CAREER Award to study aqueous fullerene colloids. The five-year, $410,588 award was granted in 2013 while he was a faculty member at Oklahoma State University. When he came to Boise State in 2014, he brought his award — and his questions — with him.
The discovery of fullerenes (large round molecules featuring a hollow cage of atoms) led to a Nobel Prize in 1996. Ausman is working with a particular subset called a buckminsterfullerene, a carbon compound that looks a lot like a soccer ball. It’s a geodesic dome-shaped structure constructed of hexagons and pentagons, with a carbon atom at each corner.
Known by the chemical symbol C60, buckminsterfullerenes look like typical hydrophobic compounds that don’t, ever, mix with water. But it turns out that under the right circumstances, C60 can indeed be suspended in liquid, making it potentially toxic to the environment, where water in one form or another is ever present.
Researchers were stumped about how this clearly impossible turn of events could transpire and media unleashed a firestorm about the potential dangers of little-understood nanomaterials.
“In 2012, we figured it out,” Ausman said. “Trace levels of ozone in atoms will react with C60 to add an oxygen molecule. That makes enough of a coating to allow it to suspend in water. Before this, everyone had been looking at the wrong molecule. C60 oxide – with oxygen added – was the right one.”
His CAREER award is allowing him to look more closely at how C60 oxide behaves. Questions include how it plays a role in stability and reactivity, how it reacts over time and with other things in the environment, whether it is stable, and how levels affect how well suspension forms. He’ll also look at C60 oxide’s role in oxidation.
As with many new nanomaterials, uses are still open-ended. However, because the molecule is hollow, it does have potential for use in delivering medications or other substances, allowing it to act as a payload.
But the more important goal for now is to learn more about the unknowns related to nanomaterials in general.
“Because this was so high profile in the media for a while, we need to demonstrate publicly that scientists can tackle questions that cause fear,” he said.
Ausman will continue his work on the project this summer and next with Sharon Cates, a science teacher at Capital High School, through an MJ Murdock Charitable Trust Partners in Science Program grant that allows high school science teachers to work with a mentor doing cutting-edge research. Three of his student lab assistants also are assisting with this project.
The NSF Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program supports junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1522036. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.