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Rice UniversityCBEN
Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology
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Theme 3: Nanoparticles and the Environment

The applications projects within Theme 3 are all oriented toward the Year-10 outcome of one engineered nanoparticle-based water treatment system in advanced product development. This is an ambitious goal and one that CBEN has planned for carefully. Researchers in this theme work to discover and develop new nano-enabled technologies that solve critical problems associated with ensuring inexpensive and clean water, which is an overriding global challenge noted as one of the Millennium Development Goals of the United Nations. In contrast to Theme 2, where biomedical devices have a value that increases substantially for better performance, researchers in Theme 3 must confront a different landscape for commercialization. Water purification and treatment technologies must compete against existing technologies whose customers do not demand increasingly better performance, but rather look for cheaper solutions that meet government standards. In addition, even if nano-enabled water technologies solve tough problems in this field, companies may not invest unless nanomaterials can be made in large scale, and used with minimal environmental and health impacts.

For these reasons, CBEN’s work to use nanomaterials in water treatment has three important features. First, we focus on treatment needs that have no effective technical solution; this involves both a selection of a challenging contaminant (e.g., arsenic) as well as a setting (e.g., point-of-use) that represents an unsolved problem. Second, we invest in basic research (with Theme 1) to improve scale-up and low-impact manufacturing processes for materials that have demonstrated promise. Finally, we elevate the study of environmental and health impacts of engineered nanoparticles to a center-wide objective. Thus, Theme 3 research has an “applications” focus that develops and tests new materials for water purification, and an “implications” side that takes a proactive stance on risk assessment. Theme 3 balances its funding equally between the applications and implications work, a decision supported by the opinions of many site visitors and outside committees.

The implications projects in Theme 3 are all working toward increasing our understanding of the risks of engineered nanoparticles released into aqueous environments. Ultimately, risk management requires quantitative models for a variety of nanotechnology use and release scenarios; CBEN is working through workshops and other community-building activities to link its fundamental science to the appropriate partners for this effort. The center’s program will develop the foundation data and frameworks for approaching the risk involved with aqueous release of model engineered nanoparticles. This will feed into a comprehensive environmental risk assessment paradigm, consisting of hazard identification, toxicity assessment, exposure assessment, and risk characterization. Thus, Theme 3 uses nanotoxicology outputs—now from Theme 1— and it provides the information and conceptual models needed to understand how engineered nanomaterials migrate and behave in the environment. Ultimately, this information will be useful for mitigating and preventing environmental and public health impacts of engineered nanoparticles released to aqueous systems.

As in past years, we are continuing to develop nanomaterials to reduce arsenic contamination for low-energy point-of-use needs; to attack organic contaminants in potable water sources, including highly contaminated aquifers; and to develop novel approaches to disinfection and microbial control. These areas define the titles of our three highly interactive projects for nanoenabled water treatment (termed here NeWT). Within this structure, two of the projects are evolving quickly toward larger-scale testing (test beds): 1) arsenic removal from drinking water, which will take advantage of the high specific area of iron-oxide nanoparticles as highly efficient and cost-effective arsenic sorbents that are amenable for magnetic separation, and 2) the destruction of particularly challenging chlorinated organic contaminants in water that can be removed to a very low level using high-performance bimetallic core/shell nanoparticles. Current approaches to these problems are relatively ineffective and costly; our proof-of-principle applications represent environmentally-benign innovations that offer substantial opportunity for commercialization. 

Further information on Theme 3 projects can be found in the CBEN Annual Reports.