SYDNEY: Amanda Barnard, winner of the 2009 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, has brought forth new ways of looking at nanotechnology.
Nanotechnology holds great promise for society, but there could be significant health and environmental risks too. Barnard uses supercomputers to learn more about these risks by modelling the behaviour and interaction of nanoparticles.
She is currently a Queen Elizabeth II Australian Research Council fellow and heads CSIRO’s Virtual Nanoscience Laboratory.
“There was so much that was unknown in nanoscience – so much to discover,” says Barnard, explaining what first caught her interest about the field. For her PhD, completed in just 17 months, she created a computer model to predict and explain various varieties of nanoscale carbon.
She continued to work with nanoparticles, and investigated how their stability could affect safety and the environment, later detailed in a commentary in the journal Nature Materials.
Barnard then took a closer look at titanium dioxide nanoparticles used in sunscreens and self-cleaning products. Although the nanoparticles themselves may be of no danger, their reactions to external sources may differ, she says.
In response to this possible hazard, Barnard has created a predictive ‘map’ of how particles will behave, depending on their shape and size, and in various thermal and chemical environments. This will help clarify what happens to the particles found in sunscreen when in contact with someone’s skin, but also when in the rivers or oceans.
With the creation of these predictive ‘maps’, Barnard has been able to help with many different research projects. These include a method for using nanoscale diamonds to deliver chemotherapy and exploring the properties of fluorescent biolabels for use in cancer diagnosis, regenerative medicine and gene therapy.
Barnard is now also creating models that explore our willingness to buy products dependent on the risk factor involved, and which combinations will promote the best economic and environmental sustainability. Her tools are going to play a crucial role in the future use of nanotechnology, and its safety.