Researchers from geosciences and civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech are part of a consortium of four principal universities and five other schools awarded a multi-million dollar grant to study nanotechnology and the environment.
This is one of only two such consortiums funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to form a national Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEIN). Total funding for the project is $14 million over five years with an opportunity to renew for another five. Virginia Tech’s portion of the grant is $1.75 million.
Nanoparticles are as much as a million times smaller than the head of a pin, and have unusual properties compared with larger objects made from the same material. These unusual properties make nanomaterials attractive for use in everything from computer hard-drives to sunscreens, cosmetics, and medical technologies. However, the environmental implications of these materials are virtually unknown.
Headquartered at Duke University, the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology will integrate the expertise of researchers in fields such as ecology, cell and molecular biology, geochemistry, environmental engineering, nanochemistry, and social science. In addition to Virginia Tech and Duke, the other schools involved in the project are Carnegie Mellon University and Howard University, with the University of Kentucky and Stanford University playing smaller but also important roles. The other Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology named in the grant is headquartered at the University of California at Los Angeles and includes the University of California at Santa Barbara. The centers are charged with studying the behavior of nanomaterials and helping to assess existing and future concerns surrounding their environmental implications.
“This is a grand challenge,” said Michael Hochella, University Distinguished Professor of Geosciences at Virginia Tech and one of five lead investigators in the consortium. “The potential diversity of nanomaterials is staggering, with countless variations in size, shape, surface chemistry, chemical composition, coatings and composites. Our challenge is to unravel the role of nanoparticles — both manufactured and naturally occurring — in ecosystems, their movements through the environment, their interactions with organisms, the mechanism by which they exert their influence and thus, their environmental impacts.”
Other researchers from Virginia Tech involved in the project are Linsey Marr and Peter Vikesland, both associate professors in civil and environmental engineering.
A distinctive element of the center is the synthesis of the data into a risk assessment model and to transfer the results into the policy-making community and society at large. The center will place students at the center of the collaborative process between schools. Virginia Tech’s part of the program includes undergraduate and graduate student fellowships, undergraduate research grants, seminar series, internships, lab rotations, service learning opportunities and annual workshops. In addition, the project will utilize recruitment efforts that will establish a diverse cadre of graduate students of underrepresented minorities and women. Howard University’s status as a Historically Black College and University makes it a valuable asset in the recruitment process.
Outreach is another key component of the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology. The center will develop educational tools for high school science teachers as well as curricula for partner museums, 4-H council, and other learning venues. Also a critical part of the project is to foster dialog with policy makers, regulators, government, and industry. The center’s social science aspect will focus on creating an infrastructure that supports this type of engagement and understanding of science on the nano scale.
“We are very, very fortunate to have been awarded this grant,” Hochella said. “The list of world-class universities that applied but were not awarded this center is truly sobering. The expertise and facilities of our CEIN (Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology) will now enable us to respond to emerging challenges, develop fundamental knowledge and the human resources across disciplines, and engage society to ensure that nanotechnology emerges as a tool of sustainability.”