Initial Publication Date: June 15, 2018

An Emerging Teaching Opportunity

Nanoscience in the Earth, Space and Environmental Sciences

Nanomaterials are everywhere in the Earth system. Nanomaterials impact chemical reactions, reaction rates and fluxes; global biogeochemical cycling; genesis and evolution of life on Earth; transport and fate of potentially hazardous or toxic materials; and environmental and human health. Nanoparticles contribute significantly to the energy and mass budgets of the Earth system. However, the role of nanoparticles is rarely incorporated into studies of the history and processes of the Earth system. Nanoparticles are either not considered in many research projects, or the sampling and analytical methods are not adequate to fully characterize the nature of nanoparticles. This means that a significant component of the Earth system is missing from models of the Earth system. A consequence of the lack of attention to nanoscience in the Earth, Space and Environmental Sciences is that nanoscience is largely absent from the curriculum in these subjects. To meet disciplinary and institutional missions, e.g. discovery of new knowledge, training the future technical workforce, and in service to society, this module on Teaching Nanoscience has been developed to assist faculty who may be interested in including nanoscience in their courses, to readily find information and resources to help them introduce concepts and examples of applied nanoscience across the curriculum. For a more complete descripiion of natural nanoparticles in the Earth system see: Hochella, M., Aruguete, D., Kim, B., and Elwood Madden, A., 2012, Naturally occurring inorganic nanoparticles: general assessment and a global budget for one of earth's last unexplored major geochemical components, in A. S. Barnard and H. Guo (eds) Nature's Nanostructures, Pan Stanford Publishing Pte. Ltd., 1-42 p.

National Mandates

Nanotechnology has been identified as a high priority topic for research and education in the United States. Nanotechnology impacts national security, economic growth, and environmental and human health issues. National priorities have been identified in numerous federal documents:

An Economic Driver

Nanoscience has tremendous societal, economic, environmental applications (The New Earth and Environmental Nanoscience and Technology Centers Sponsored by NSF, Hochella et al., 2016). Consider:

  • Nano-enabled products are worth roughly US $1 trillion annually, which is expected to become US $3 trillion in 2020.
  • Government derived research and development funding is roughly US $10 billion annually.
  • This is a full employment opportunity for students who are appropriately trained.

Workforce Needs--Employment Opportunities Across STEM

Nanoscience is an exciting frontier of research that cuts across virtually all fields in the Earth, Space and Environmental Sciences. Building on fundamental concepts from related STEM disciplines (physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, engineering), Earth and Environmental scientists are needed to study the role of nanoparticles in the open, dynamic and complex Earth system:

  • Connecting the macroscopic to the nano-scale world;
  • Characterizing the properties (chemical, mechanical, biological) of materials on the nanoscale, and demonstrating their role in participating and mitigating the pathways and rates of chemical reactions;
  • Demonstrating the impacts of nanoparticles on environmental (system level), organismal, and human health;
  • Discovering applications of nanoparticles to the design and development of next generation materials used for the benefit of humanity.

Numerous reports have documented the anticipated employment opportunities in nanoscience:

Given the rapid advances and growth in nanoscience and technology, the Earth, Space and Environmental Sciences will need to develop a community-based plan to determine how best to prepare for projected workforce needs, to develop a curriculum that addresses the content knowledge and skills needed for next generation scientists to engage careers in nanoscience, and to identify the range of career options related to nanoscience.

Nanoscience Addresses Emerging Research and Societal Needs

Nanoscience is central to some of the most vital issues of the twenty-first century:

  • safe water,
  • mineral and energy resource development,
  • design and development of 'next generation' nanomaterials that can be applied to diverse technologies such as environmental remediation, energy storage and transfer, biomedical devices and pharmaceuticals, sensors,
  • local/regional/global contaminant issues (fate and transport of heavy metals, organic compounds, engineered nanoparticles)
  • human health and the environment (including questions of disease transmission, bioavailability, impacts on epidemiology, toxicology, and human physiology),
  • global climate change.... and much more.

Contributions That Can be Made by the Earth, Space and Environmental Sciences

Earth scientists have developed disciplinary skills that are readily and immediately applicable to nanoscience. Earth scientists work in the open, heterogeneous, dynamic and often chaotic Earth system. This requires working on temporal scales from instantaneous to the span of geologic time; spatial scales from the atomic to planetary; employing the first principles of physics, chemistry and biology; science that is increasingly quantitative and model-focused; and is simultaneously analytical and synthetic/integrative. Earth scientists typically work with incomplete datasets, but are adept at dealing with uncertainty and reasoning by inference (see Manduca C. and Kastens, K., 2012, Geoscience and Geoscientists: Uniquely equipped to study Earth, Geol. Soc. Amer. Sp. Paper,486, Kastens and Manduca (eds), Earth and Mind II A Synthesis of Research on Thinking and Learning in the Geosciences, p. 1-12). Earth scientists are particularly well-positioned to contribute to nanoscience in at least two important areas:

  • Understanding Complex Systems: The Earth, Space and Environmental Sciences are focused on the complex interactions among the various components of the Earth system, and feedback mechanisms that involve the chemical,physical, and biological work of Earth (See the module from the On the Cutting Edge program on Developing Student Understanding of Complex Systems in the Geosciences.
  • Characterization of nanoparticles: Earth scientists routinely employ an arsenal of analytical instruments (e.g., TEM, SEM, XRD, AFM, SIMS, ....) to characterize the composition, chemical state, atomic structure, optical properties, mechanical properties, and much more about Earth materials. See the accompanying module on Geochemical Instrumentation and Analysis for more detailed examples.
  • Research on nanoparticles and processes that operate on the nanoscale can lead to development of "geo-inspired" materials that exploit the chemical and physical properties of nanominerals that occur in nature.

Earth and Environmental Science Fields Where Nanoscience and Nanotechnology are Important

  • Petrology (Igneous, Metamorphic, Sedimentary)
  • Geomechanics
  • Field Geology and Geophysics
  • Atmospheric Science
  • Geochemical Transport, Trace Element Mobility
  • Biomineralization, Mineral-Microbe, Biogeochemistry
  • Mineralogy, Crystallography
  • Crystal Growth
  • Environmental Geochemistry
  • Mineral-Water Interface Geochemistry
  • Weathering, Dissolution
  • Soil Science, Clay Mineralogy
  • Colloidal Science
  • Element Cycling
  • Aqueous Geochemistry
  • Geologic Resources (Ores, Fuels)
  • Geoethics
  • Incidental Materials in the Environment
  • Engineered Materials in the Environment