The challenge in preparing particle suspensions for aquatic microplastic research

Environ Res. 2019 Jan;168:490-495. doi: 10.1016/j.envres.2018.09.008. Epub 2018 Sep 8.


The occurrence of small particles consisting of organic polymers, so-called microplastic (MP), in aquatic environments attracts increasing interest in both public and science. Recent sampling campaigns in surface waters revealed substantial numbers of particles in the size range from a few micrometers to a few millimeters. In order to validate sample preparation, identification and quantification and to investigate the behavior of MP particles and potential toxic effects on organisms, defined MP model particles are needed. Many studies use spherical compounds that probably behave differently compared to irregularly shaped MP found in environmental samples. However, preparation and handling of MP particles are challenging tasks and have been systematically investigated in the present study. Polystyrene (PS) as a commonly found polymer with a density slightly above that of water was selected as polymer type for milling and fractionation studies. A cryogenic ball mill proved to be practical and effective to produce particles in the size range from 1 to 200 µm. The yield of small particles increased with increasing pre-cooling and milling durations. Depending on the concentration and the size, PS particles do not completely disperse in water and particles partly creep vertically up along glass walls. Stabilized MP suspensions without use of surfactants that might harm organisms are needed for toxicological studies. The stabilization of PS particle suspensions with ozone treatment reduced the wall effect and increased the number of dispersed PS particles but increased the dissolved organic carbon concentration and changed the size distribution of the particles.

Keywords: Dispersion; Microplastic; Ozonation; Particle behavior; Particle surface; Polystyrene.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Particle Size
  • Plastics / analysis*
  • Polymers
  • Polystyrenes
  • Suspensions
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical / analysis*


  • Plastics
  • Polymers
  • Polystyrenes
  • Suspensions
  • Water Pollutants, Chemical