The science: one of my colleagues, Prof. Vicki Colvin, can make magnetite nanoparticles via chemical techniques. Magnetite is an interesting material for a number of reasons, some of which I'll probably write about later. It's a ferrimagnet with a Curie temperature of over 800 K. Nanoparticles smaller than about 40 nm in diameter are single-domain, and those smaller than about 16 nm in diameter are superparamagnetic at room temperature. That means that while the spins are ferrimagnetically ordered, the energy required to reorient the magnetization direction of a given particle is less than the thermal energy scale, kT. Anyway, magnetic particles have been used in the chemical engineering world for a long time to do separations. Make magnetic particles that adsorb your favorite nasty contaminant of water; mix the particles in with the water, and then use large magnetic field gradients to pull the now-dirty particles out, leaving behind cleaned water. Just looking at the magnetic forces on individual magnetic particles tells you that nanoparticles shouldn't work well: the magnetic forces scale like diameter cubed, while viscous forces scale linearly with diameter, and Brownian forces scale like one over the diameter. However, she tried the separation process anyway using a little bench-top separator, and it worked exceedingly well! She asked me why, and after scratching my head for a little while, I realized that the key is actually interactions between the particles. The field gradients near single-domain nanoparticles can readily be 10000 times higher than externally applied gradients, leading to much larger forces than those due to the external field directly. To avoid permanent agglomeration of the particles, yet maximize separability at modest fields, one wants to use the biggest particles that are still single-domain superparamagnets. The real upside is that the nanoparticles have enormous specific surface area. So, a cleanup task that used to take a kilogram of big particles only needs a few grams of nanoparticles.
The sociology: Prof. Colvin could easily have written this up and just thanked me, rather than really inviting my participation and making me a co-author. Instead, she very much wanted my input and gave me ample opportunities to help in the writing of the manuscript. The result was a Science paper, and there is real promise (at least according to our environmental engineering coauthor, who is the expert on cost estimates and water purification) that variations of this work could greatly help in cleaning up arsenic-contaminated drinking water in the developing world. Very cool.