Analysis of Single-Walled Carbon Nanotubes in Estuarine Sediments by Density Gradient Ultracentrifugation Coupled to Near-Infrared Fluorescence Spectroscopy Reveals Disassociation of Residual Metal Catalyst Nanoparticles.


The continued growth of the nanotechnology industry and the incorporation of nanomaterials into consumer applications will inevitably lead to their release into environmental systems. Single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs) in particular have exhibited many attractive optical, mechanical, and electrical properties that lend themselves to new and exciting applications. Assessing their environmental impact upon release into the environment is contingent upon quantifying and characterizing SWCNTs in environmental matrixes. In this study, SWCNTs were isolated from estuarine sediments using density gradient ultracentrifugation (DGU), followed by online flow-through analysis of the density fractions via near-infrared spectroscopy. This approach yielded significant improvements in the quantitative detection limit, from 62 to 1.5 μg g-1. In addition, fractions of the density gradient were also obtained for further analysis by bulk inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (ICP-MS) and single-particle ICP-MS. Using fluorescent, semiconductive SWCNTs, the primary fluorescent nanotube fraction was found to be separated from the sediment matrix during DGU; however, the residual metal catalyst particles that had been assumed to be physically bound to the SWCNTs were found to form a separate band in the density gradient apart from the fluorescent SWCNTs. This result was repeated for a number of SWCNT types regardless of the metal catalyst and synthesis method, with a 0.1 g cm-3 density difference between most fractions. The apparent disconnect between the fluorescent fraction of SWCNTs and their metal-containing constituents potentially complicates CNT risk assessment as analysis techniques focusing solely on either CNT fluorescence or metal fingerprints may misrepresent exposure concentrations and their toxicological implications.