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Andrea Hicks displaying Keuric coffee maker in one hand and nanosilver plastic food storage in her other hand.
July 18, 2017

Andrea Hicks investigates environmental impacts of novel technologies

Written By: Pat DeFlorin

Most of us are not fond of stinky feet, so the idea of adding antimicrobial nanoparticles to socks to reduce odor seems great.

But what are the societal and environmental costs and benefits of lacing our clothing with nanoparticles? It is questions like this that intrigue Andrea Hicks and a Grainger Institute for Engineering Faculty Scholar Award supports her quest to answer them.

Hicks, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, studies the environmental impacts of new and novel technologies by deconstructing the role they play in industrial ecosystems. To do this, she conducts life cycle analyses to examine products’ environmental footprints from their creation to disposal. This involves measuring the amount of water, energy, natural resources and greenhouse gas emissions required to create, use, maintain and dispose of products. She also considers economic impacts through life cycle cost accounting and keeps an eye toward social implications.

Hicks is currently investigating the costs and benefits of adding nanosilver to hospital gowns. Adding nanosilver to textiles such as hospital gowns makes them antimicrobial and reusable. While reusing nanosilver gowns alleviates the cost of disposable gowns, it introduces the environmental cost of mining and refining the silver. So, what’s the tradeoff? Hicks found that approximately 12 uses of a nanosilver gown would have the same environmental footprint as using 12 disposable gowns, meaning that after 12 uses, the nanosilver reusable gown would have a smaller environmental impact.

The Grainger Institute for Engineering Faculty Scholar Award supports Hicks as she expands her research to other products containing nanomaterials.

One such product is nanosilver plastic food storage containers. As with textiles, adding nanosilver to plastic food storage containers makes them antimicrobial and allows them to keep food fresher longer, minimizing food waste. So, Hicks investigates whether the upstream cost of adding nanosilver to plastic food storage containers outweighs the benefit of decreased food waste with these containers.

In addition to nanosilver, Hicks is beginning to study the environmental impact of titanium dioxide, a common white pigment added to products including toothpaste, baby formula and sunblock.

But Hick’s examination of lifecycles is not limited to products; she studies processes as well.

For example, the Grainger Institute for Engineering Faculty Scholar Award gives Hicks the freedom to delve into research on the interplay of food, energy, and water related to the aquaculture and dairy industries in Wisconsin.

Regarding the Wisconsin dairy industry, Hicks is exploring different ways to make value-added products out of animal waste. “You can anaerobically digest solid animal waste and get biogas, but there is not a great deal of added economic value for the farmer. The goal is to take waste products and create value-added products,” says Hicks.

An alternative way to create value from animal waste is to use it to make struvite, a potent fertilizer. “While Struvite is more valuable to farmers than methane, it also costs more to produce. So, there’s a tradeoff,” says Hicks.

There are tradeoffs to all industrial products and processes and it’s important to understand them while the manufacturing processes can still be changed.

“That’s why I’m interested in novel technologies,” says Hicks. “If my research can help change things before they are widely adopted, I’ll be making a difference.”