From Academic Curiosity to Real-World Tool


Until recently nanotechnology has been at best an academic curiosity, albeit one with dramatic promise. The Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) at Rice University aims to transform this discipline into a tool for use in any number of fields. CBEN envisions nanotechnology emerging as a discipline with the relevance, vitality, and commercial impact that polymer science enjoys today. Such a transformation would necessarily create tremendous career opportunities in any field touched by the applications developed.

One of six recently announced Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), CBEN is co-directed by Rice University professors Richard Smalley, recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and Vicki Colvin.

In its first year, it brings together 21 principle investigators from chemistry, biochemistry, cell biology, bioengineering, chemical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, environmental science and engineering, materials science, education, and management. These investigators are combining basic scientific research with an intense focus on developing applications, commercializing them, and training the workforce that will be necessary to support them.

Research at the "Wet-Dry" Interface

The CBEN researchers have chosen to focus their efforts on the interface between nanostructured materials and aqueous systems. From the standpoint of applications, water is a natural focus of interest as the most abundant solvent on the planet and the medium of all life. However, most nanomaterials are naturally hydrophobic, making water a foreign environment for them. This interface between "dry" nanotechnology and water is being explored at a variety of length scales, ranging from the interactions between nanoparticles and molecular water, through biomolecules, cells, whole organisms, and up to the world's environment itself. CBEN is investigating a variety of nanomaterials either in pristine form or after rendering them water soluble, including semiconductor nanocrystals, metal nanoshells, single-walled carbon nanotubes, and metallofullerenes. Basic scientific research investigating the molecular-level interactions between nanomaterials and water, biomolecules, and cellular systems support applications development.

A Focus on Applications Development

CBEN research targets biological and environmental systems for applications development. The bioengineering research is devoted to developing therapeutic and diagnostic aids that utilize the unique properties of nanomaterials. For example, metal nanoshells are nanoscopic materials that absorb near-infrared light with great efficiency. When bound to biological molecules that target cancer cells, they become light-activated killers, burning up cancer cells when exposed to near-infrared light. CBEN supports research that will optimize the efficiency of these functional bionanoconjugates as well as explore the basic cellular machinery that accompanies cell death. In a second project, injectable nanocomposites for bone replacement are expected to overcome problems with current technologies by improving strength, biocompatibility, and ease of nutrient transport.

In the other major theme area, CBEN researchers are investigating a variety of nanostructured materials for addressing persistent problems in environmental engineering. For example, filter membranes are at the heart of many environmental applications, including water, wastewater, and hazardous waste treatment, resource recovery, and pollution prevention. CBEN is developing membranes the nanostructured design of which will improve catalytic behavior, reduce fouling, and provide entirely new functionality.

Whether nanotechnology finds commercial success in small niche markets or in everyday, high-volume ones, nanomaterials will be employed in applications that at some point will introduce them to the outside world. Nearly nothing is known about the environmental fate of these materials, some already available in bulk quantities. In an effort to identify and head-off potential environmental concerns, CBEN is introducing the environmental perspective early into the culture of emerging nanotechnologies by investigating the possible consequences of nanomaterials' being released into the environment, including such phenomena as particle-mediated transport, bioassimilation, and biomagnification.

To enable these research programs, CBEN funding supports new postdoctoral, graduate, and undergraduate positions along with new scientific instrumentation infrastructure and instrumentation support staff.

Transferring Applications Beyond the Academic Lab

CBEN's industrial affiliates program promotes the exchange of ideas between the center and established corporations to open new areas of research inquiry. This program fosters partnerships between center researchers and affiliate corporations to develop promising nanotechnology discoveries and facilitate technology transfer, and will match employment opportunities within affiliate corporations with CBEN students.

In addition to this somewhat traditional program, CBEN is developing a nanotechnology entrepreneurship education program. Following the biotechnology industry model, breakthrough nanotechnologies may best be developed by small groups of highly skilled, risk-taking individuals. Through the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship, CBEN provides researchers access to a talent pool of potential collaborators, mentors, and investors and provides a forum for discussing commercialization issues.

CBEN's Nanomanufacturing Facility will further bridge the gap between academic research and commercialization. Nanomaterial synthesis scaleup is often beyond the scope of an academic lab, yet established companies are typically unwilling to invest in making large quantities of nanomaterials without sufficient applications testing in hand. The Nanomanufacturing Facility will take on annual scaleup projects to provide materials needed for on-site testing of applications under realistic conditions and to break the Catch-22 that hinders the development of usable technologies with these new materials.

The Future Nanotechnology Workforce

As with any new technology, the impact of nanotechnology on the future workforce will depend heavily on the benefits imparted as compared with the implementation costs. The likely benefits of nanomaterials to biological and environmental engineering are enormous, ranging from medical therapies and diagnostics to pollution control devices and monitors, all far exceeding the capabilities of current technologies. Such a transition would require a new population of scientists, technicians, consultants, salespersons, and many others able to understand and work with both the new nanomaterials and the applications areas. CBEN's educational outreach functions must therefore draw new talent to the field in spite of the steady decline in science graduate program enrollment. The center's educational outreach efforts are addressing this by identifying, recruiting, and training the nanoscience workforce of the future. Through educational programs ranging from the ninth-grade on up to postdoctoral levels, CBEN is striving to spark an interest in science and engineering in general, and nanotechnology in particular, and leverage that interest into a capable workforce ready to turn academic discoveries into commercial realities.

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