NSF gives $12M to Rice to study nanotech's impact on health, environment

Funding will continue Rice's pioneering research through 2011

The National Science Foundation has extended funding for Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology with a five-year renewal worth $12 million. The renewal ensures CBEN programs will continue through 2011.

CBEN was the first academic research center in the world dedicated to studying the interaction between nanomaterials and living organisms and ecosystems. It was founded with a five-year grant in 2001 and was eligible for a one-time five-year extension.

"In its first five years, CBEN helped produce groundbreaking research in nanomedicine, nanobiotechnology, nanotoxicology and nanoscale methods for environmental remediation," said CBEN Director Vicki Colvin, professor of chemistry. "CBEN has played an active role in informing the public, lawmakers and industry about potential unintended environmental consequences of nanotechnology. With this new funding, we are looking forward to making even more significant strides."

Colvin stressed that CBEN's success has extended well beyond the laboratory.

"Our educational programs for K-12 science teachers and their students have exposed thousands of young people to the exciting frontiers of nanoscale science," she said. "In addition, we have helped encourage companies to move nanotechnology from the laboratory to the marketplace through a varied set of collaborations with diverse groups like the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship and the International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON)." CBEN was among the first six Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers (NSECs) funded by NSF following the creation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000. NSF currently funds 16 NSECs.

Mihail C. Roco, NSF's senior adviser for nanotechnology, attested to CBEN's impact on the field of nanotechnology. "In 2000, nanotechnology research was focused on uncovering new phenomena, and the question was, 'When would we have applications in various fields?'" Roco said. "Then, CBEN was created as the first center on health and environmental implications funded by NSF under NNI. The creation of the center has symbolic meaning. From the challenge of building the first nanostructures, we have moved into research on societal hopes and concerns, and this in the first year of the national initiative.

"Now, after five years, the center not only has become a reference resource at the national and international levels, but it also defines the field itself, and how science, engineering and society converge."

CBEN's research focus is on the so-called "wet-dry" interface between biology and materials science. For example, the machinery of life inside every living cell exists in a water-based environment. Nanomaterials, on the other hand, are often either insoluble or unable to function efficiently in solution. CBEN's research aims to understand how nanomaterials function in water-based environments such as living organisms and ecosystems.

The International Council on Nanotechnology (ICON), a multi-stakeholder initiative that grew out of CBEN-led activities, is addressing the potential environmental and health risks of nanotechnology. ICON last year unveiled a nanomaterial-specific Environmental, Health and Safety Database as a free public service.

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