Nanotechnology for all

Rice University in the US has opened a research centre that aims to move nanotechnology beyond molecular-scale electronics and science-fiction nanobots.

To achieve its goal, the centre will focus on a seemingly mundane element: water.

Researchers at the new Centre for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology will use their knowledge of how nanometer-sized materials interact with water to develop new medical therapies and solve persistent problems in environmental engineering.

The Rice centre, one of six major Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centres funded by the US National Science Foundation, is the first to focus on applications of nanoscience to biology and the environment.

The $10.5 million grant will enable educational and industrial outreach activities in addition to research.

‘Our goal is to shape nanoscience into a discipline with the relevance, triumphs, and vitality of a modern-day polymer science into something that people use every day,’ said Vicki Colvin, associate professor of chemistry at Rice and co-director of the centre.

Research activities will emphasise the interface between nanomaterials and water-based systems, ranging in size from biomolecules and cells to whole-organisms and the surrounding environment.

This ‘wet/dry’ interface is said to be fundamental to applications in medicine and environmental engineering. Gold nanoshells injected into cancer cells, for instance, are currently being tested as a cancer therapy. A likely environmental application of nanomaterials is wastewater treatment, as nanostructured materials should make efficient filtration systems.

The centre has attracted a breadth of expertise in all three of the areas under its research umbrella. In addition to Colvin, Nobel Prize winner Richard E. Smalley, the Gene and Norman Hackerman Professor of Chemistry and professor of physics at Rice, will direct the centre’s long-term goals.

In a three-pronged approach, educational and industrial outreach programs at the centre will complement research activities.

The centre’s industrial component includes a partnership with Rice’s Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management. This program will encourage the transfer of centre technology to start-up ventures by bringing together scientists, students, and business experts interested in nanoscience applications.

On the web