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IPGP researchers search for nanoparticles on glaciers

In autumn 2021, two IPGP researchers will carry out a sampling mission on Alpine glaciers, with the aim of tracing the distribution and source of nano-sized particles in preserved areas. This expedition is a continuation of the NanoTrack project, funded by the IdEx Université de Paris, on the study of nanoparticles and their effects on humans and the environment.

IPGP researchers search for nanoparticles on glaciers

Publication date: 06/01/2022

Press, Research

Related themes : Earth System Science

Last autumn, two IPGP researchers, Yann Sivry and Sophie Coural, were able to lead a scientific mission organized as part of the INSIDE THE GLACIERS project, supported by Italian, French and Swiss scientific teams, including the Spélé’Ice Exploration Association and IPGP-UPC. Several expeditions took place between August and December 2021 by various teams, on eight different glaciers on the northern slopes of the Alps, including glaciological and microbiological studies. The samples collected by all these missions will enable IPGP scientists to obtain a complete dataset and a global view essential for tracing the sources of nanoparticles, their object of study.

A look back at the IPGP researchers’ expedition

This high-risk mission, carried out on and inside the Zinal and Moiry glaciers in Valais (Switzerland), enabled IPGP scientists to take samples of ice at various depths, as well as runoff water and sediments, with the aim of tracing the chemical composition of nanoparticles deposited over time in successive layers of ice. The aim is to determine whether this chemical composition is specific to a natural source, or whether it is linked to a human source following atmospheric transport and deposition (snow, rain, wind deposition). Like the Nanoparticle Observatory of Grand Paris project (NanObs, led by the IPGP and supported by the Fondation Université de Paris), the aim here is to trace the distribution and source of nano-sized particles in supposedly more remote and preserved areas.

Sophie Coural descending into a "moulin", a crevasse widened by meltwater.
Yann Sivry drilling a horizontal core in the ice.

Nanotrack project: Nano-objects in natural systems – distinguishing the anthropogenic from the geogenic

One of the main limitations of nanometrology is the multitude of nanomaterials present in natural systems: while a minority are manufactured nano-objects, many other nanoparticles (NPs) produced by natural or anthropogenic processes are present in the natural environment. Existing analytical tools are not yet capable of distinguishing natural NPs from anthropogenic and/or man-made NPs, at the low concentrations expected in environmental matrices. The lack of high-performance tools still limits risk prediction and management, in a context of major environmental and societal challenges. The development of new technologies for innovative measurements is a key factor in ensuring long-term monitoring of the effects of nanoparticles on consumers, workers and the environment.

The Nanotrack project aims to break down this barrier by discriminating between geogenic and anthropogenic nanoparticles, through the combined use of the latest innovative tools: non-traditional stable isotopes, high-resolution ICPMS and time-of-flight ICPMS used in single-particle counting mode, and asymmetric flux-force fractionation. This project is not only one of the first studies dedicated to discriminating between anthropogenic and geogenic nanoparticles in environmental systems, but also the first to combine all three of these cutting-edge tools, to understand, quantify and predict the fate of nanoparticles on a larger scale.

The new knowledge acquired in this project will be crucial not only for the implementation of regulations and laws dedicated to nanotechnologies, but also for the information and protection of the general public with regard to the various sources of nanoparticles.

Ice sampling (coring) 20 cm long.

If the results of the work carried out during this mission in the Alps are convincing, IPGP researchers will then be able to envisage studies in more remote areas (Greenland, Patagonia) with sampling plans on a larger scale.

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