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Biological response to purification and acid functionalization of carbon nanotubes

Acid functionalization has been considered as an easy way to enhance the dispersion and biodegradation of carbon nanotubes (CNT). However, inconsistencies between toxicity studies of acid functionalized CNT remain unexplained. This could be due to a joint effect of the main physicochemical modifications resulting from an acid functionalization: addition of surface acid groups and purification from catalytic metallic impurities. In this study, the impact on CNT biotoxicity of these two physiochemical features was assessed separately. The in vitro biological response of RAW 264.7 macrophages was evaluated after exposure to 15–240 µg mL−1 of two types of multi-walled CNT. For each type of CNT (small: 20 nm diameter, and big: 90 nm diameter), three different surface chemical properties were studied (total of six CNT samples): pristine, acid functionalized and desorbed. Desorbed CNT were purified by the acid functionalization but presented a very low amount of surface acid groups due to a thermal treatment under vacuum. A Janus effect of acid functionalization with two opposite impacts is highlighted. The CNT purification decreased the overall toxicity, while the surface acid groups intensified it when present at a specific threshold. These acid groups especially amplified the pro-inflammatory response. The threshold mechanism which seemed to regulate the impact of acid groups should be further studied to determine its value and potential link to the other physicochemical state of the CNT. The results suggest that, for a safer-design approach, the benefit-risk balance of an acid functionalization has to be considered, depending on the CNT primary state of purification. Further research should be conducted in this direction.
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