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A Novel Approach for Identifying Nanoplastics by Assessing Deformation Behavior with Scanning Electron Microscopy.

TitleA Novel Approach for Identifying Nanoplastics by Assessing Deformation Behavior with Scanning Electron Microscopy.
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2023
AuthorsStine JS, Aziere N, Harper BJ, Harper SL
JournalMicromachines (Basel)
Date Published2023 Oct 05

As plastic production continues to increase globally, plastic waste accumulates and degrades into smaller plastic particles. Through chemical and biological processes, nanoscale plastic particles (nanoplastics) are formed and are expected to exist in quantities of several orders of magnitude greater than those found for microplastics. Due to their small size and low mass, nanoplastics remain challenging to detect in the environment using most standard analytical methods. The goal of this research is to adapt existing tools to address the analytical challenges posed by the identification of nanoplastics. Given the unique and well-documented properties of anthropogenic plastics, we hypothesized that nanoplastics could be differentiated by polymer type using spatiotemporal deformation data collected through irradiation with scanning electron microscopy (SEM). We selected polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) to capture a range of thermodynamic properties and molecular structures encompassed by commercially available plastics. Pristine samples of each polymer type were chosen and individually milled to generate micro and nanoscale particles for SEM analysis. To test the hypothesis that polymers could be differentiated from other constituents in complex samples, the polymers were compared against proxy materials common in environmental media, i.e., algae, kaolinite clay, and nanocellulose. Samples for SEM analysis were prepared uncoated to enable observation of polymer deformation under set electron beam parameters. For each sample type, particles approximately 1 ┬Ám in diameter were chosen, and videos of particle deformation were recorded and studied. Blinded samples were also prepared with mixtures of the aforementioned materials to test the viability of this method for identifying near-nanoscale plastic particles in environmental media. Based on the evidence collected, deformation patterns between plastic particles and particles present in common environmental media show significant differences. A computer vision algorithm was also developed and tested against manual measurements to improve the usefulness and efficiency of this method further.

Alternate JournalMicromachines (Basel)
PubMed ID37893340
PubMed Central IDPMC10609349
Grant List1935018, 1935028 / / National Science Foundation /

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