Date of Award

Summer 7-2014

Embargo Period


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Civil and Environmental Engineering


Gregory V. Lowry

Second Advisor

Robert D. Tilton


The increasing production and usage of engineered nanoparticles has raised concerns about potential ecological and human exposures and the risks these novel materials may pose. Nanoparticles are often manufactured with an organic macromolecular coating, and they will attain further coatings of adsorbed natural organic matter (NOM) in the environment. The overall objective of this thesis is to improve our ability to quantify the effects of adsorbed coatings on nanoparticle fate in the environment. The physicochemical properties of the coating or the adsorbing macromolecule are expected to strongly mediate the surface interactions, and hence the environmental fate, of coated nanoparticles. To this end, this research focuses on assessing a coating characterization method and applying extensive characterization of NOM coatings to enable the development of correlations to predict nanoparticle deposition onto model environmental surfaces and aggregation. The first objective is to assess the applicability of a soft particle electrokinetic modeling approach to characterize adsorbed layer thickness, which contributes to repulsive steric forces that will affect nanoparticle deposition. A statistical analysis determined that high uncertainty in fitted layer thicknesses will limit this approach to thin, low-charged coatings (for which it may be advantageous to typical sizing methods such as dynamic light scattering). Application of this method in experimental studies further confirmed the model limitations in estimating layer thicknesses and the inability of this measurement (and other commonly measured properties) to fully explain nanoparticle deposition behavior. These results demonstrated the need for improved detail and accuracy in coating characterization. The second objective is to correlate the properties of NOM to its effects on gold nanoparticle aggregation, with particular focus on the role of heterogeneity or polydispersity of the NOM molecular weight. Multiple types of NOM collected from representative water bodies and soils were used, both in whole and separated into molecular weight (MW) fractions, and characterized for chemical composition and MW distribution. While average MW of the NOM provided good correlation with aggregation rate, the highest MW components were found to contribute disproportionately in stabilizing nanoparticles against aggregation, highlighting the importance of measuring and accounting for high MW components to explain nanoparticle aggregation. However, an outlier from the MW trend was identified, emphasizing the need for additional characterization (e.g. of reduced sulfur content or the conformation of the adsorbed NOM) to fully explain the effects of NOM on nanoparticle aggregation. Altogether, this research provides novel knowledge that will guide future application of characterization methods to predict attachment processes for coated nanoparticles in the environment.