Influence of environmental and biological macromolecules on aggregation kinetics of nanoplastics in aquatic systems

Yanjun Liu, Ziqing Huang, Jini Zhou, Jie Tang, Chen Yang, Chengyu Chen, Weilin Huang, Zhi Dang

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Nanoplastics derived from degradation of micro- or macroplastics are emerging contaminants in aquatic environments, where their fate and transport as well as toxicity are affected by aggregation. This study employed time-resolved dynamic light scattering to investigate the aggregation kinetics of polystyrene nanoplastics (PSNPs) in the presence of four macromolecules (sodium alginate (SA), bovine serum albumin (BSA), extracellular polymeric substance (EPS), and Suwannee River humic acid (HA)) in solutions containing monovalent (NaCl) and divalent (CaCl2) salts at different pH. Our results showed that the macromolecules enhanced PSNP stability in NaCl solutions but destabilized PSNPs in CaCl2 solutions at pH 6. In NaCl solutions, macromolecules inhibited PSNP aggregation due to steric hindrance originated from macromolecular layer adsorbed on PSNPs. The strongest stabilization effect was observed for BSA having the greatest hydrodynamic adsorption layer thickness of 21.9 nm, followed by HA, EPS, and SA. In CaCl2 solutions, SA significantly destabilized PSNPs via alginate bridging with Ca2+, which enhanced with concentrations of SA and CaCl2. The destabilization effects of other three macromolecules in CaCl2 solutions were governed by the interplay among molecular bridging, charge screening, and steric hindrance. An increased pH in NaCl or CaCl2 solutions containing macromolecules all stabilized PSNPs due to elevated electrostatic repulsion, except that SA destabilized PSNPs in CaCl2 solutions via enhanced molecular bridging. The stabilization effect of macromolecules may also compete with the destabilization effect under seawater condition. This study suggested that PSNP aggregation in aquatic environments could be strongly affected by macromolecules and solution chemistry.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number116316
JournalWater Research
StatePublished - Nov 1 2020
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Ecological Modeling
  • Water Science and Technology
  • Waste Management and Disposal
  • Pollution


  • Adsorption
  • Colloidal stability
  • Electrical double layer compression
  • Molecular bridging
  • Nanoparticles
  • Steric hindrance

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