Name of the infrastructure: UoB-TA                                             

Location (town, country): Birmingham, United Kingdom

Web site address: http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/index.aspx; http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/fenac/index.aspx

Legal name of organisation operating the infrastructure: University of Birmingham (UoB)

Location of organisation (town, country): Birmingham, United Kingdom

Description of the Infrastructure


MATERIALS AND EXPERTISE: The key offering of the UoB Environmental Nanoscience is a unique combination of particle synthesis and stable-isotope labelling skills coupled with expertise in nanoparticle characterisation in environmental systems and analysis of nanoparticle transformations in the environment and interactions between nanomaterials and environmental macromolecules, i.e., the enviro-nano interface.  


UoB hosts the UK National Facility for Environmental Nanomaterials Analysis and Characterisation (FENAC), funded by the Natural Environmental Research Council (NERC), which has been running since 2010.   Experienced staff scientists support the offered facilities leading to a unique portfolio of expertise from geochemists, material scientists, physical and biophysical chemists, environmental nanoscientists, microscopists and cell biologists. The UoB Environmental Nanoscience Group contributes cutting edge expertise in characterisation of nanoparticles and in particular regarding the interactions of nanoparticles with environmental and living systems. UoB claims such a combination of expertise and facilities to be unique in Europe.


The University of Birmingham is a world leading higher education institution, both nationally and internationally, offering high-standard teaching and research in most major disciplines. The University is one of the leading research based universities in the U.K, attracting a total income of more than £400 million annually, £90 million of which comes from external funding sources (i.e. UK Research Councils, Government and International funding bodies, including the European Commission).  The School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences (GEES) has more than 60 academic staff, most of whom are natural / physical scientists.  Research in the School centres around four inter-disciplinary and multidisciplinary research themes (Environmental Health Sciences; Geosystems; Society, Economy and Environment; Water Sciences) that cut across traditional discipline boundaries. The Environmental Nanoscience Group, based within Environmental Health Sciences, hosts the FENAC facility, which aims to produce reliable data analysing nanoparticles under realistic environmental conditions for the better understanding of biological and environmental impacts of manufactured nanoparticles.



UoB is providing access via QualityNano Transnational Access to a number of services for the synthesis, labelling, analysis and characterisation and exposure assessment of nanoparticles.  The state-of-the-art equipment for synthesis and characterisation of nanoparticles offered via UoB includes:

Particle Synthesis:

Installation 1:  Wet-synthesis laboratories

Facilities and expertise for wet-synthesis of a range of inorganic nanoparticles, including metals, metal oxides and ceramics.  Particles made routinely include amongst others Ag, Au, CeO2, ZnO, CuO, SiO2, calcium phosphates and Fe/Fe oxides. Purification approaches available include Split-flow thin cell (SPLITT) fractionation, dialysis and various ultrafiltration devices (UF), including cross flow ultrafiltration (CFUF).


Particle labelling via Stable isotope enrichment of Nanoparticles:

Installation 2:  Stable isotope enrichment facilities

Facilities and expertise for isotope enrichment of a range of inorganic nanoparticles, including metals, metal oxides and ceramics, using a range of methods to produce particles of identical structure to the unmodified versions, thereby ensuring no potential problems relating to label elution or altered dissolution or stability behaviour.  Particles made routinely with isotopic enrichment include Ag, CeO2, ZnO, CuO, and others.


Particle Characterisation in-situ & ex-situ

Installation 3: Particle sizing and/or fractionation

Dynamic light scattering (DLS) and zeta potential to determine size distribution and surface charge of nanoparticles in the samples of interest, and how these parameters change with e.g. temperature composition of the samples.

Differential Centrifugal Sedimentation (DCS) allows characterisation of nanoparticles in complex mixtures such as dispersed in cell culture media, and allows determination of the thickness of the absorbed biomolecule or macromolecule layer.

Asymmetric flow field-flow fractionation (FlFFF), with on-line uv, fluorescence and multi-angle light scattering detection is used to separate nanoparticles and other sample components in complex samples, and to determine their continuous size distribution.

Nanoparticle tracking analysis (NTA) provides real-time dynamic nanoparticle visualisation, and for specific samples with particular need,


Installation 4 - Microscopy Imaging

The facility has access to a wide range of imaging and microscopy techniques with sub-micrometer to sub-nanometer resolution, including:

  • a range of electron microscopy techniques (TEM and SEM) at the Centre for Electron    Microscopy
  • atomic force microscopy (AFM)
  • confocal microscopy

Ancillary data can also be collected, including chemical information on major elements, oxidation state and bond formation and type (EM-EDX and EELS), quantitative morphology information such as particle size distribution and shape factors, along with particle-particle force measurements.

Atomic Force Microscopy allows profiling of the height of nanoparticles which is often missing from Electron Microscopy or sizing measurements.  Additionally, it can be used to assess the force of adhesion between particles and cells.

For biological applications, sub-nanometer resolution imaging of cells with associated nanoparticles can be performed using liquid-mode AFM, and distribution of nanoparticles inside cells or living organisms can be analysed by TEM. 


Installation 5 - Spectroscopy

Fluorescence correlation spectroscopy is used to measure the nanoparticle size distribution and numbers of fluorescent nanoparticles at sub-nm resolution.  It can also be used to track nanoparticle interactions with macromolecules including proteins and natural organic matter if labelled appropriately.

Surface plasmon resonance, determined by UV-visible spectroscopy, is also used as an indication of nanoparticle size, shape and concentration, as well as providing information on particle dissolution.


Installation 6 – Chemical and Other Analysis

This general heading covers a wide range of methodologies and measurement parameters.

ICP-MS, ICP-OES and GFAAS can be used to measure metal concentrations of nanoparticles and dissolved metals down to nano-molar concentrations.  Our new single-particle ICP-MS can further measure and differentiate between ultra-trace concentrations of both particulate and dissolved metals.

We have access to several X-ray diffraction (XRD) instruments to characterise crystal structure and mineralogical composition of nanoparticles in powder samples.  XRD spectra can be used to calculate particle size if particles are sufficiently small (low nanometer range).

Our electron microscopes can also detect energy-dispersive X-ray diffraction, which is used to determine the elemental composition of individual nanoparticles, while x-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) is used alongside EM methods to characterise surface chemistry.


Installation 7- Quartz Crystal Microbalance

QCM is highly effective for determining the affinity of molecules (proteins, in particular) to surfaces, including nanoparticles, and for assessment of degree of functionalization via measurement of binding to recognition sites. Frequency measurements are easily made to high precision, hence, it is easy to measure mass densities down to a level of below 1 μg/cm2.

This is part of the UoB suite of approaches for assessment of environmental coronas, which also includes electrophoresis (PAGE, agar, zymmography) and DCS for measurement of binding interactions.


Particle Exposure Assessment

Installation 8: Exposure suite

Including climate controlled incubators for plants, soil and water organisms, ultramicrotome and the imaging suites.


Research supported by the infrastructure:

With the establishment of the Facility for Environmental Nanoscience Analysis and Characterisation (FENAC) in 2009, UoB developed a portfolio of case studies of nanoparticle characterisation in complex environmental contexts (e.g. in river or sea water, in wastewater, in soil, following uptake by living organisms, etc.). UK national projects supported via FENAC have ranged from assessing the impact of nanoparticles on the bioremediation of hydrocarbons in aquatic ecosystems or the treatment of nuclear wastes to characterisation of natural nanoparticles in fumarolic gas/fluids from volcanoes, floodplain and wetland environments, to ecotoxicology of nanoparticles in a range of organisms, including aquatic microorganisms, sediment dwelling invertebrates, aquatic invertebrates, and fish model systems.

Significant EU-projects supported include the EU FP7 flagship project NanoMILE which is coordinated by UoB, an EU-US modelling project ModNanoTox, and EU FP7 projects MARINA, NanoValid, FutureNanoNeeds, NanoDefine and EcofriendlyNano.


Services currently on offer and scientific highlights:

UoB provides a range of support services for potential users, covering all accompanying activities, such as i) general consultancy for interested parties, ii) pre-proposal check, iii) technical feasibility check, iv) quality control, v) data evaluation & processing and vi) final reporting to supporting the final report.

Recent research highlights include:


Particle Synthesis:

Misra, S. K.; Nuseibeh, S.; Dybowska, A.; Berhanu, D.; Tetley, T. D.; Valsami-Jones, E., Comparative study using spheres, rods and spindle-shaped nanoplatelets on dispersion stability, dissolution and toxicity of CuO nanomaterials. Nanotoxicology 2014, 8(4), 422-432.

Stefaniak AB, Hackley VA, Roebben G, Ehara K, Hankin S, Postek MT, Lynch I, Fu WE, Linsinger TP, Thünemann AF. Nanoscale reference materials for environmental, health and safety measurements: needs, gaps and opportunities. Nanotoxicology. 2013, 7(8):1325-37.


Particle labelling via stable isotope enrichment:

Larner F, Dogra Y, Dybowska A, Fabrega J, Stolpe B, Bridgestock LJ, Goodhead R, Weiss DJ, Moger J, Lead JR, Valsami-Jones E, Tyler CR, Galloway TS, Rehkämper M. Tracing bioavailability of ZnO nanoparticles using stable isotope labelling. Environmental Science & Technology, 2012, 46, 12137-12145.

Khan FR, Laycock A, Dybowska A, Larner F, Smith BD, Rainbow PS, Luoma SN, Rehkämper M, Valsami-Jones E.  Stable isotope tracer to determine uptake and efflux dynamics of ZnO Nano- and bulk particles and dissolved Zn to an estuarine snail. Environ Sci Technol. 2013, 47(15):8532-9.

Misra, S. K.; Dybowska, A.; Berhanu, D.; Croteau, M. N. l.; Luoma, S. N.; Boccaccini, A. R.; Valsami-Jones, E., Isotopically modified nanoparticles for enhanced detection in bioaccumulation studies. Environmental science & technology 2011, 46 (2), 1216-1222.


Particle Characterisation in-situ & ex-situ:

Baalousha M and Lead JR. Rationalizing nanoparticle sizes measured by AFM, FlFFF and DLS: sample preparation, polydispersity and particle structure. Environmental Science and Technology, 2012, 46, 6134-6142.

Misra SK, Dybowska A, Berhanu D, Luoma SN, Valsami-Jones E. The complexity of nanoparticle dissolution and its importance in nanotoxicological studies. Sci Total Environ. 2012, 438:225-32.

Diedrich T, Dybowska A, Schott J, Valsami-Jones E, Oelkers EH. The dissolution rates of SiO2 nanoparticles as a function of particle size. Environ Sci Technol. 2012, 46(9):4909-15.

Monopoli MP, Pitek AS, Lynch I, Dawson KA. Formation and characterization of the nanoparticle-protein corona. Methods Mol Biol. 2013;1025:137-55.

Amiri H, Bordonali L, Lascialfari A, Wan S, Monopoli MP, Lynch I, Laurent S, Mahmoudi M. Protein corona affects the relaxivity and MRI contrast efficiency of magnetic nanoparticles. Nanoscale. 2013, 5(18):8656-65.


Particle Exposure Assessment:

García-Alonso J, Rodriguez-Sanchez N, Misra SK, Valsami-Jones E, Croteau MN, Luoma SN, Rainbow PS. Toxicity and accumulation of silver nanoparticles during development of the marine polychaete Platynereis dumerilii. Sci Total Environ. 2014, 476-477C:688-695.

Buffet PE, Zalouk-Vergnoux A, Châtel A, Berthet B, Métais I, Perrein-Ettajani H, Poirier L, Luna-Acosta A, Thomas-Guyon H, Risso-de Faverney C, Guibbolini M, Gilliland D, Valsami-Jones E, Mouneyrac C. A marine mesocosm study on the environmental fate of silver nanoparticles and toxicity effects on two endobenthic species: The ragworm Hediste diversicolor and the bivalve mollusc Scrobicularia plana. Sci Total Environ. 2014, 470-471:1151-9.

Fabrega J, Tantra R, Amer A, Stolpe B, Tomkins J, Fry T, Lead JR, Tyler CR, Galloway TS. Sequestration of zinc from zinc oxide nanoparticles and life cycle effects in the sediment dweller amphippod Corophium volutator.  Environmental Science and Technology, 2012, 46, 1128-1135.

K. Gaiser, T. F. Fernandes, M. A. Jepson, J. R. Lead, C. R. Tyler, M. Baalousha, A. Biswas, G. J. Britton, P. A. Cole, B. D. Johnston, Y. Ju-Nam, P. Rosenkranz, T. M. Scown, V. Stone (2011). Interspecies comparisons on the uptake and toxicity of silver and cerium dioxide nanoparticles. Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, 31(1), 144-154.