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University of Iowa News Release

Sept. 7, 2005

Scherer Receives $1.4 Million NSF Nanotechnology Grant

Michelle Scherer, associate professor in the University of Iowa College of Engineering Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, has received a four-year, $1.4 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to study the behavior of nanoscale iron oxides in the environment.

Funded under NSF's Nanoscale Science and Engineering (NSE) Program Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team (NIRT), the grant is formally titled "NIRT: Nanoparticle Iron as a Reactive Constituent in Air, Water, and Soil." The project's goal is to learn about the formation and behavior of nanoscale iron oxides, which affect the cycling of key environmentally important elements, such as carbon, nitrogen and phosphorus.

Particles in the nanometer size range are everywhere in nature, ranging from ultra-fine mineral dust in the atmosphere to nanocrystalline precipitates in water. Scherer noted that recent nanoscale research into a variety of materials has shown that that the behavior of small particles differs, often dramatically, from those of larger particles. Iron, the sixth-most abundant element in the universe, is commonly found in nanometer size -- less than one-ten-billionth of a meter -- in air, water and soil. These tiny iron particles play key roles in important environmental and industrial processes, such as global carbon cycling, degradation of soil and water quality, and corrosion of societal infrastructure, such as bridges and highways, and have even been implicated in processes which may have led to the origin of life on earth and biological activity on Mars.

"We are, in essence, taking the fundamental hypothesis of nanoscience that says 'things do not simply scale down in proportion' and exploring whether it is true for naturally occurring iron particles," Scherer said. "Observing the behavior of nanoscale iron oxides nanoparticles for four diverse, but related, processes critical to the iron biogeochemical cycle will provide a powerful mechanism to identify new phenomena and reactions that are unique to oxide particles within the nanometer size range."

Despite the widespread occurrence and industrial use of iron oxides, little is known about the behavior of nanoparticle iron oxides mostly because they are challenging to work with, due to their small size and instability in the presence of water.

Because a study of the behavior of iron oxide nanoparticles requires a diverse team of researchers, including geochemists, environmental chemists and environmental microbiologists, Scherer created the NIRT team. Much of the work will be done in collaboration with Vicki Grassian's group in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Department of Chemistry, as Grassian is an expert in heterogeneous reactions of atmospheric particles and spectroscopic techniques used to probe surface reactivity.

The information derived from the project may provide a tool to trace the distribution of microorganisms in modern and ancient Earth, and may also aid in the protection of public health by improved predictions of chemical exposure from subsurface waters and primary productivity of oceanic waters.

Scherer's co-principal investigators are: Vicki Grassian, professor of chemistry in the UI College of Liberal Arts and Sciences; Clark Johnson, professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; John Coates, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of California, Berkeley; Martin St. Clair, professor of chemistry at Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Michael Leonardo, professor of biology, Coe College.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Services, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Gary Galluzzo, 319-384-0009, gary-galluzzo@uiowa.edu