Probing biofilm-nanoparticle interactions

2015-2016 E²SHI Seed Grant

Research Team

Mike Bevan, Professor, Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. Contact Dr. Bevan

Howard Fairbrother, Professor, Department of Chemistry

Groundwater polluted with synthetic nanoparticles*, such as silica and alumina, has major ramifications for health and economic costs given that nanoparticles are ubiquitous in household, food and agricultural products. The nanoparticles enter the groundwater via runoff from industrial discharges, urban activities, agriculture, waste disposal, septic tanks and more.

Biofilms are of particular interest as a sustainable and low-cost alternative to water treatment. Biofilms, or assemblies of tiny microorganisms on a surface, have the potential to remove synthetic nanoparticles from water. Biofilms can be used in biologically active granular filter (BAGF) technology, which is a promising cheap and sustainable drinking water treatment option. However, the microscopic properties of biofilms are one of the most poorly understood phenomena in science – and therefore limit the potential for distributing and using BAGFs.

In this research project, Doctors Bevan and Fairbrother examined how synthetic nanoparticles interact with silica and alumina surfaces, which represent surfaces on which biofilms grow. Their findings aim to lay the groundwork for future studies of biofilms – and pave the way for tailoring and improving the performance of future BAGFs as well as future research in water treatment.

Synthetic nanoparticles are very small particles – around or less than 100 nanometers (nm) - which are either incidentally produced or engineered, and typically serve a specific purpose.


JHU Water Institute article: Are nanoparticles a threat to our drinking water? 

What are biofilms? 

Dr. Bevan co-chaired the the 86th American Chemical Society Colloid and Surface Science
Symposium at Johns Hopkins in June 2012 along with another E²SHI seed grant recipient,
Joelle Frechette. Credit: Will Kirk/

When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.
— John Muir