Australian researchers are working on a number of novel uses for engineered microscopic particles, including more efficient fertilisers, agricultural “amendments” and a unique way to clean-up contaminated land.
Engineered nanoparticles are currently used in a range of industrial materials, such as ceramics and advanced polymers, and are also commonly used in the production of household materials, personal care products and clothing.
But they are seen as a pollutant risk if they are able to accumulate in the environment.
With a maximum diameter of just 100 nanometres, it is easy for the particles to be widely dispersed across soil and accumulated by plants.
But researchers have found that the same nanoparticles could also prove beneficial to the growth of plants.
A glasshouse trial conducted by researchers in Adelaide involved exposing rice plants to titanium and cerium nanoparticles.
One of the team, Elliott Duncan, said that instead of proving toxic to the plants, the nanoparticles aided the growth of the rice plants.
Current laboratory tests have focused on rice plants, but Dr Duncan said the same particles could also be used to benefit other grain crops and horticultural species, with tests expected to begin on wheat later this year.
“There’s a lot of concern in terms of whether engineered nanoparticles are toxic, whether they’re accumulated by plants and what the end effect is for humans and the environment,” he said.
“But we found these particles may actually provide some benefits for the plants, and, if we could harness those, this could be a big deal for the agriculture industry.”
The experiment demonstrated that some nanoparticles had the potential to be used as an agricultural supplement, although Dr Duncan said it was still unclear how exactly these particles helped the growth of plants.
“The mechanisms behind it and predicting whether it is going to occur and how best to harness it is still unknown,” he said.
His team will continue with glasshouse experiments to test the safety and effect of the nanoparticles.
“We’re aware that there are risks involved with nanoparticles, but the reward could also be great too,” he added.