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Researchers discover potentially harmful nanoparticles produced through burning coal

Environmental scientists led by the Virginia Tech College of Science have discovered that the burning of coal produces incredibly small particles of a highly unusual form of titanium oxide.

When inhaled, these nanoparticles can enter the lungs and potentially the bloodstream.

The particulates – known as titanium suboxide nanoparticles – are unintentionally produced as coal is burned, creating these tiniest of particles, as small as 100 millionths of a meter, said the Virginia Tech-led team. When the particles are introduced into the air – unless captured by high-tech particle traps – they can float away from power plant stacks and travel on air currents locally, regionally, and even globally.

As an example of this, these nanoparticles were found on city streets, sidewalks, and in standing water in Shanghai, China.

The findings are published in Nature Communications under team leader Michael F. Hochella Jr., University Distinguished Professor of Geosciences with the College of Science, and Yi Yang, a professor at East China Normal University in Shanghai. Other study participants include Duke University, the University of Kentucky, and Laurentian University in Canada.

“The problem with these nanoparticles is that there is no easy or practical way to prevent their formation during coal burning,” Hochella said, adding that in nations with strong environmental regulations, such as the United States, most of the nanoparticles would be caught by particle traps. Not so in Africa, China, or India, where regulations are lax or nonexistent, with coal ash and smoke entering the open air.