From The Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science: “John Fortner:: ‘Fishing’ for Toxic Contaminants using Superparamagnetic Nanoparticles”


From The Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science


Yale University


Clean water

Once a water source is contaminated it can be costly and difficult to remediate. Natural remedies can take hundreds of years and still may not successfully remove all the dangerous contaminants. When it comes to global public health issues such as this, the need for new and safe solutions is urgent. John Fortner is designing solutions from scratch to do just that.

Fortner, associate professor of chemical and environmental engineering, leads one of the few labs in the U.S. investigating the intersection between materials science and environmental engineering. There, materials synthesized directly in the lab, whether magnetic nanoparticles, graphene-based composites, or hyperthermic catalysts, are carefully engineered to treat contaminants in water sources.

Fortner has always been drawn towards improving public health through environmental-based pathways. He initially considered a career in medicine when he first discovered the field of environmental engineering.

“I took a bioremediation course and I became fascinated with engineering biological systems to break down contaminants in situ,” Fortner said.

At the time, traditional environmental engineering research focused on using microbes – biological organisms on the microscopic scale – to degrade contaminants within industrial wastewater streams. After taking courses that bridged his biological focus with applied engineering systems, Fortner found his ‘fit’ and soon switched to environmental engineering.

Though ubiquitous today, nanomaterial research is a relatively new field. In the late 20th century, the development of advanced imaging technologies enabled scientists to study nanomaterials for the first time. In 1989, 15 years after the term “nanoscience” was coined, the first nanotechnology company began to commercialize nanostructures. By 2001, when Fortner entered graduate school, nanomaterials had been industrialized in computer science and biomedical engineering.

Compared to their larger counterparts, nanomaterials have advantages, such as tunability and/or unique reactivity, stemming from their incredibly small sizes and novel properties. As Fortner puts it, “nanomaterials have the potential to do what traditional materials simply can’t.”

In 1985, chemists at Rice discovered a new carbon allotrope – buckminsterfullerene (termed fullerenes or “buckyballs”) – leading them to a 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and sparking a nanotechnology boom at Rice and beyond. Through this, the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, an NSF-funded research center, was founded at Rice when Fortner started his graduate studies. There, he worked with collaborators to understand the behavior of nanomaterials in the environment, with his Ph.D. thesis focused on fullerenes in natural systems. At the time, very little was known about the matter that led to several exciting findings underpinning the emerging field of environmental nanotechnology.

“At the time, there was so much to explore,” Fortner said. “Beyond understanding fundamental nanomaterial behavior in the environment, it was clear that there were fantastic opportunities to apply ‘nano’ to critical environmental problems in sensing and treatment (pollution remediation)…to help make folks’ lives healthier through a better, cleaner environment.”

Soon after graduation, Fortner joined the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis where he studied the fundamental mechanisms involved with nanostructure synthesis and reactivity. He was particularly interested in understanding how nanoparticles degrade contaminants differently than traditional systems and if nanoparticles have applications beyond the water industry.

During his time at Washington University, he was a Fellow within the International Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability, where he collaborated with other researchers to develop nanotechnologies for a range of applications including new water treatment membranes and sensing technologies.

“It was a wonderful place to start an independent research career,” Fortner said. “I developed amazing collaborations there, which pushed me even more to the fundamental side of chemistry and material science.”

Fortner joined the faculty of Yale’s Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering in 2019. In the Fortner Lab, almost everything is created from scratch: researchers design and synthesize nanoparticles, multi-component composites, and associated functional coatings to address water-related environmental issues.

One of his most recent collaborations centers around perfluoroalkyl contaminants (PFAS), which are fluorinated carbon structures found in numerous consumer products ranging from fast food wrappers to Teflon pans to firefighting foams. Because these products were engineered to be unreactive to most chemicals or high temperatures, PFAS contaminants cannot be treated using conventional biological treatment processes. To address these ‘forever chemicals,’ Fortner’s lab, working with Kurt Pennell from Brown University and Natalie Capiro from Auburn University, has engineered superparamagnetic nanoparticles, which are specially coated with sorbents. They discovered that when these engineered nanoparticles are dispersed in a polluted source, contaminants are attracted to specified functional groups on the molecule. The particles, along with the contaminants, can then be collected using a magnet field and the concentrated PFAS can be removed. This strategy allows for very large volumes of media to be managed in a targeted and energy-efficient manner.

“It’s amazing,” Fortner said. “We can sorb a significant amount of PFAS onto one particle and simply use a magnet to remove it. It’s a nice way to go ‘fishing’ to remove PFAS, or other contaminants, from a polluted water source.”

Compared with other research laboratories around Yale, the Fortner Lab is a small but mighty force. Currently six Ph.D. students are mentored by Fortner, in addition to two postdoctoral researchers. The small size of the group allows for him to work individually with the students, enabling them to take real ownership of research projects. Susanna Maisto, a first-year Environmental Engineering Ph.D. student, describes the research group as “supportive, welcoming, and collaborative.”

“Dr. Fortner has a great mentorship style; always providing any support you need, but never overstepping.” Maisto said. “He checks in often to make sure that we are thriving in and out of the lab.”

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Yale School of Engineering and Applied Science Daniel L Malone Engineering Center
The Yale School of Engineering & Applied Science is the engineering school of Yale University. When the first professor of civil engineering was hired in 1852, a Yale School of Engineering was established within the Yale Scientific School, and in 1932 the engineering faculty organized as a separate, constituent school of the university. The school currently offers undergraduate and graduate classes and degrees in electrical engineering, chemical engineering, computer science, applied physics, environmental engineering, biomedical engineering, and mechanical engineering and materials science.

Yale University is a private Ivy League research university in New Haven, Connecticut. Founded in 1701 as the Collegiate School, it is the third-oldest institution of higher education in the United States and one of the nine Colonial Colleges chartered before the American Revolution. The Collegiate School was renamed Yale College in 1718 to honor the school’s largest private benefactor for the first century of its existence, Elihu Yale. Yale University is consistently ranked as one of the top universities and is considered one of the most prestigious in the nation.

Chartered by Connecticut Colony, the Collegiate School was established in 1701 by clergy to educate Congregational ministers before moving to New Haven in 1716. Originally restricted to theology and sacred languages, the curriculum began to incorporate humanities and sciences by the time of the American Revolution. In the 19th century, the college expanded into graduate and professional instruction, awarding the first PhD in the United States in 1861 and organizing as a university in 1887. Yale’s faculty and student populations grew after 1890 with rapid expansion of the physical campus and scientific research.

Yale is organized into fourteen constituent schools: the original undergraduate college, the Yale Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and twelve professional schools. While the university is governed by the Yale Corporation, each school’s faculty oversees its curriculum and degree programs. In addition to a central campus in downtown New Haven, the university owns athletic facilities in western New Haven, a campus in West Haven, Connecticut, and forests and nature preserves throughout New England. As of June 2020, the university’s endowment was valued at $31.1 billion, the second largest of any educational institution. The Yale University Library, serving all constituent schools, holds more than 15 million volumes and is the third-largest academic library in the United States. Students compete in intercollegiate sports as the Yale Bulldogs in the NCAA Division I – Ivy League.

As of October 2020, 65 Nobel laureates, five Fields Medalists, four Abel Prize laureates, and three Turing award winners have been affiliated with Yale University. In addition, Yale has graduated many notable alumni, including five U.S. Presidents, 19 U.S. Supreme Court Justices, 31 living billionaires, and many heads of state. Hundreds of members of Congress and many U.S. diplomats, 78 MacArthur Fellows, 252 Rhodes Scholars, 123 Marshall Scholars, and nine Mitchell Scholars have been affiliated with the university.


Yale is a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU) and is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”. According to the National Science Foundation, Yale spent $990 million on research and development in 2018, ranking it 15th in the nation.

Yale’s faculty include 61 members of the National Academy of Sciences , 7 members of the National Academy of Engineering and 49 members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. The college is, after normalization for institution size, the tenth-largest baccalaureate source of doctoral degree recipients in the United States, and the largest such source within the Ivy League.

Yale’s English and Comparative Literature departments were part of the New Criticism movement. Of the New Critics, Robert Penn Warren, W.K. Wimsatt, and Cleanth Brooks were all Yale faculty. Later, the Yale Comparative literature department became a center of American deconstruction. Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, taught at the Department of Comparative Literature from the late seventies to mid-1980s. Several other Yale faculty members were also associated with deconstruction, forming the so-called “Yale School”. These included Paul de Man who taught in the Departments of Comparative Literature and French, J. Hillis Miller, Geoffrey Hartman (both taught in the Departments of English and Comparative Literature), and Harold Bloom (English), whose theoretical position was always somewhat specific, and who ultimately took a very different path from the rest of this group. Yale’s history department has also originated important intellectual trends. Historians C. Vann Woodward and David Brion Davis are credited with beginning in the 1960s and 1970s an important stream of southern historians; likewise, David Montgomery, a labor historian, advised many of the current generation of labor historians in the country. Yale’s Music School and Department fostered the growth of Music Theory in the latter half of the 20th century. The Journal of Music Theory was founded there in 1957; Allen Forte and David Lewin were influential teachers and scholars.

In addition to eminent faculty members, Yale research relies heavily on the presence of roughly 1200 Postdocs from various national and international origin working in the multiple laboratories in the sciences, social sciences, humanities, and professional schools of the university. The university progressively recognized this working force with the recent creation of the Office for Postdoctoral Affairs and the Yale Postdoctoral Association.

Notable alumni

Over its history, Yale has produced many distinguished alumni in a variety of fields, ranging from the public to private sector. According to 2020 data, around 71% of undergraduates join the workforce, while the next largest majority of 16.6% go on to attend graduate or professional schools. Yale graduates have been recipients of 252 Rhodes Scholarships, 123 Marshall Scholarships, 67 Truman Scholarships, 21 Churchill Scholarships, and 9 Mitchell Scholarships. The university is also the second largest producer of Fulbright Scholars, with a total of 1,199 in its history and has produced 89 MacArthur Fellows. The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs ranked Yale fifth among research institutions producing the most 2020–2021 Fulbright Scholars. Additionally, 31 living billionaires are Yale alumni.

At Yale, one of the most popular undergraduate majors among Juniors and Seniors is political science, with many students going on to serve careers in government and politics. Former presidents who attended Yale for undergrad include William Howard Taft, George H. W. Bush, and George W. Bush while former presidents Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton attended Yale Law School. Former vice-president and influential antebellum era politician John C. Calhoun also graduated from Yale. Former world leaders include Italian prime minister Mario Monti, Turkish prime minister Tansu Çiller, Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, German president Karl Carstens, Philippine president José Paciano Laurel, Latvian president Valdis Zatlers, Taiwanese premier Jiang Yi-huah, and Malawian president Peter Mutharika, among others. Prominent royals who graduated are Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden, and Olympia Bonaparte, Princess Napoléon.

Yale alumni have had considerable presence in U.S. government in all three branches. On the U.S. Supreme Court, 19 justices have been Yale alumni, including current Associate Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, and Brett Kavanaugh. Numerous Yale alumni have been U.S. Senators, including current Senators Michael Bennet, Richard Blumenthal, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Chris Coons, Amy Klobuchar, Ben Sasse, and Sheldon Whitehouse. Current and former cabinet members include Secretaries of State John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Cyrus Vance, and Dean Acheson; U.S. Secretaries of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, Robert Rubin, Nicholas F. Brady, Steven Mnuchin, and Janet Yellen; U.S. Attorneys General Nicholas Katzenbach, John Ashcroft, and Edward H. Levi; and many others. Peace Corps founder and American diplomat Sargent Shriver and public official and urban planner Robert Moses are Yale alumni.

Yale has produced numerous award-winning authors and influential writers, like Nobel Prize in Literature laureate Sinclair Lewis and Pulitzer Prize winners Stephen Vincent Benét, Thornton Wilder, Doug Wright, and David McCullough. Academy Award winning actors, actresses, and directors include Jodie Foster, Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Elia Kazan, George Roy Hill, Lupita Nyong’o, Oliver Stone, and Frances McDormand. Alumni from Yale have also made notable contributions to both music and the arts. Leading American composer from the 20th century Charles Ives, Broadway composer Cole Porter, Grammy award winner David Lang, and award-winning jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer all hail from Yale. Hugo Boss Prize winner Matthew Barney, famed American sculptor Richard Serra, President Barack Obama presidential portrait painter Kehinde Wiley, MacArthur Fellow and contemporary artist Sarah Sze, Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist Garry Trudeau, and National Medal of Arts photorealist painter Chuck Close all graduated from Yale. Additional alumni include architect and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Maya Lin, Pritzker Prize winner Norman Foster, and Gateway Arch designer Eero Saarinen. Journalists and pundits include Dick Cavett, Chris Cuomo, Anderson Cooper, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Fareed Zakaria.

In business, Yale has had numerous alumni and former students go on to become founders of influential business, like William Boeing (Boeing, United Airlines), Briton Hadden and Henry Luce (Time Magazine), Stephen A. Schwarzman (Blackstone Group), Frederick W. Smith (FedEx), Juan Trippe (Pan Am), Harold Stanley (Morgan Stanley), Bing Gordon (Electronic Arts), and Ben Silbermann (Pinterest). Other business people from Yale include former chairman and CEO of Sears Holdings Edward Lampert, former Time Warner president Jeffrey Bewkes, former PepsiCo chairperson and CEO Indra Nooyi, sports agent Donald Dell, and investor/philanthropist Sir John Templeton,

Yale alumni distinguished in academia include literary critic and historian Henry Louis Gates, economists Irving Fischer, Mahbub ul Haq, and Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman; Nobel Prize in Physics laureates Ernest Lawrence and Murray Gell-Mann; Fields Medalist John G. Thompson; Human Genome Project leader and National Institutes of Health director Francis S. Collins; brain surgery pioneer Harvey Cushing; pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper; influential mathematician and chemist Josiah Willard Gibbs; National Women’s Hall of Fame inductee and biochemist Florence B. Seibert; Turing Award recipient Ron Rivest; inventors Samuel F.B. Morse and Eli Whitney; Nobel Prize in Chemistry laureate John B. Goodenough; lexicographer Noah Webster; and theologians Jonathan Edwards and Reinhold Niebuhr.

In the sporting arena, Yale alumni include baseball players Ron Darling and Craig Breslow and baseball executives Theo Epstein and George Weiss; football players Calvin Hill, Gary Fenick, Amos Alonzo Stagg, and “the Father of American Football” Walter Camp; ice hockey players Chris Higgins and Olympian Helen Resor; Olympic figure skaters Sarah Hughes and Nathan Chen; nine-time U.S. Squash men’s champion Julian Illingworth; Olympic swimmer Don Schollander; Olympic rowers Josh West and Rusty Wailes; Olympic sailor Stuart McNay; Olympic runner Frank Shorter; and others.