press release
Published: 08 December 2020

New method to label and track nano-particles could improve our understanding of plastic pollution

A ground-breaking method to label and track manufactured nano-plastics could signal a paradigm shift in how we understand and care for environments, finds a new study.

Nano-plastics are particles of at least one dimension below one μm. While there has been growing awareness of the dangers of visible plastic pollution to marine life, nano-plastics are thought to be even more dangerous as unseen, smaller animals and fish can ingest them.

Nano-plastics are suspected of being released into the environment directly by commercial products and by the breakdown of larger pieces of plastic litter.

In a study published by the journal Communications Materials, researchers from the University of Surrey detail a new one-step polymerization method to label nano-polystyrene directly on the carbon backbone of plastic.  The new simple method uses 14C-styrene and requires minimal reagents and equipment to create nano-particles in a wide range of sizes for use in simulated lab environments. 

The team has used their new method to produce and investigate the behaviour of nano-plastics at low concentrations in a variety of scenarios – including in bivalve mollusc.

Dr Maya Al Sid Cheikh, co-author of the study and Lecturer in Analytical Chemistry at the University of Surrey, said:

“The truth is that the scientific community knows little about the effects and behaviour of nano-plastics in our environment because it’s extraordinarily difficult to detect, track and measure such minute particles.

“Our new, simple method is a step in the right direction for correcting this knowledge gap as it allows researchers to replicate scenarios in which commercially produced nano-particles have customarily gone unnoticed.”

Read the full study to find out more.

Note to editors

The University of Surrey is working with the University of Plymouth, Oxford University, Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology and Heriot-Watt University.

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