The rapid pace of innovation in engineered nanomaterials (ENM) has led to a very large growth in new applications that take advantage of the unique properties of these materials. Fullerenes (carbonaceous ENM, e.g. 60-carbon nanospheres) are used in diverse applications, ranging from biomedical science (e.g., drug delivery), cosmetics (e.g., free radical 'scavenging'), to renewable energy systems (e.g., polymer photovoltaic cells). However, the impact of fullerenes on the natural environment is poorly understood, particularly as the fullerenes, like other ENMs, can undergo significant changes over their life cycle, changes that can affect their manner of transport and partitioning between environmental compartments. This proposal will develop a life-cycle analysis of fullerene materials by considering two diverse pathways of fullerene utilization: renewable energy (photovoltaics) and personal health (cosmetic creams). The PI and Co-PIs will utilize an ecosystem assessment approach and use toxicity data for a life-cycle assessment that will compare the eco-toxicity impact from the totality ('embodied') of upstream production of fullerene to that of the 'direct' eco-toxicity of the materials, when they are released into the environment. A successful outcome can inform sustainable ENM process design, material handling, disposal practices, and help guide policy and decision-making. The proposal also has a varied and strong outreach and educational plan, especially the incorporation of opportunities for underrepresented K-12 students to engage in sustainable nanotechnology research.
Specifically, this proposal will address key issues about life cycle impact of fullerene-based materials, which will be translatable to life cycle assessments (LCAs) for other ENMs as well. They propose to create new life cycle metrics that can account for systems-level impact of fullerenes on select ecosystem functions by combining laboratory microcosm studies of freshwater ecosystems under fullerene exposure with emerging life cycle accounting techniques for ecosystem services. This data will enable the investigators to assess the eco-toxicity impact from 'embodied' versus 'direct' eco-toxicity of the materials. The end goal of this research is to create a comprehensive life cycle assessment of fullerene ecological impact that reflects realistic variability of fullerene materials, life cycle stages, and end uses. The ability to distinguish between direct and embodied ecological eco-toxicities will enable prioritization of life-cycle stages and intervention strategies that have the highest opportunity for environmental improvement. Outcomes from this effort can inform environmentally low-impact fullerene production methods, identify risks associated with fullerene-containing products at end-of-life, enable proactive policy-making for ENMs.