Jeff Morris (’83, Business Administration) has built a career at the intersection of science and public policy.
Now as the EPA’s National Program Director for Nanotechnology, Morris leads a team of scientists and analysts exploring both the beneficial and harmful effects of nanotechnology: the science of materials so tiny they’re measured in billionths of meters.
For example, EPA researchers helped determine that nano-scale bits of iron can clean up pollutants such as PCBs in groundwater. The tiny particles are now at work in 38 polluted groundwater sites around the country, Morris says, and twice that number around the world.
“We’re looking at how nanomaterials can be most effective, and making sure that introducing those materials into the ground water plume won’t trade one pollutant for another,” says Morris.
After earning a business degree at Western, Morris got hooked on environmental policy during a Peace Corps stint in the Dominican Republic. He eventually wrote a master’s thesis about economic incentives for reforestation in the Dominican Republic and went to Washington, D.C., to work in the EPA’s pesticides program.
“I had seen the public policy decisions made in the Dominican Republic and how they affected environmental protection there,” Morris says. It was work he wanted to be a part of in the U.S.
Commercial interest in nanotechnology is exploding. The EPA has had requests to sign off on more than 100 different types of nanomaterials headed to market. Long used in paint and sunscreen, nanoparticles are now used in carbon fibers to make stronger, lighter structures such as bicycle frames, tennis rackets and airplane wings.
Nanoparticles are also used in fabrics to keep clothing cleaner and fresher. But do those tiny particles expose workers to health hazards in the factory? Do they get washed away in the laundry and pollute the water? These are questions for the scientists at EPA and elsewhere.
Nanotechnology will also be an important part of the next generation of lithium-ion batteries, particularly in transportation, Morris says. But if the nano-elements can be removed easily, people won’t have to risk their health – or the environment – to dismantle and recycle those batteries.
“We have a history in environmental protection of spending all our energy cleaning up problems that occur when we didn’t understand the impact of doing things,” Morris says. “We’re trying to stay, if not ahead of the curve, at least on it.”
These days, Morris works with other federal and international agencies to collaborate on nanotechnology research. The U.S., Japan and other countries recently pooled their funds to study one type of carbon nanotube, he says. Morris is also writing a book about the intersection of science and policy as it relates to nanotechnology.