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Rice UniversityCBEN
Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology

Strategic Plan

CBEN discovers and develops nanomaterials to enable new medical and environmental technologies. Nanotechnologies generally have great potential to revolutionize how we treat disease and clean our environment. CBEN focuses on those technologies that use chemically prepared, soluble nanomaterials. These materials are the same size as naturally occurring biomolecules, and can be designed for specific functions in biological and environmental systems. Successful applications require fine manipulation of the interface between inorganic nanostructures (the dry side) and biological systems (the wet side). CBEN has termed this the ‘wet/dry interface’ and its control is the organizing theme of all of CBEN’s science and engineering research.

Though unified intellectually by the wet/dry interface, our research programs are oriented toward tangible technological outcomes, or engineered systems. These are:

  • Nanoparticles that detect and treat disease
  • Effective, high performance water purification systems

Each of these goals carries substantial technical challenges specific to its particular objectives that are addressed in CBEN’s environmental (Theme 3) and bioengineering (Theme 2) thrust areas. We have also identified two potential roadblocks to these technologies that lie outside of their specific technical areas. They are the development of sustainable manufacturing methods for nanoparticles and the stewardship of nanotechnology-based products. We address the first roadblock in the third objective, which cuts across CBEN. The second roadblock is not entirely technical, but as has become recently apparent, remains a critical issue to address. For this reason, we retain both a strong research effort on health effects and environmental studies of engineered nanomaterials as well as substantial outreach focus on educating the public on real versus perceived risks of nanotechnology.

CBEN Organization

Research in CBEN is organized into distinct but highly interrelated projects; we strongly select for interdisciplinary teams of at least two and more typically three and four investigators. These groups work on problems that can be grounded in fundamental science, focused on enabling technologies, or a combination of the two. In all cases they must be clearly related to the engineering systems goals as articulated in this plan for CBEN. All projects in CBEN have strong interactions with other efforts in the center.  However, for management reasons we group efforts roughly based on their objective: Theme 1 for materials development, manufacturing, and fundamental science, Theme 2 for bioengineering oriented projects and Theme 3 for environmental engineering efforts. Also, CBEN has evolved a number of common objectives that are apparent in distinct engineering efforts. For example, in many projects the need to produce water-soluble and stable nanoparticles of various types is a major goal.

Systems-level Goals 

CBEN devotes significant resources to two equally important parts of the technology development and commercialization pipeline: developing the engineered systems and addressing significant commercialization barriers. The technology development efforts are the first organizing principle in CBEN. They prioritize the research efforts and define which commercialization barriers are of most importance.  They are ambitious and at the early stages of CBEN it is unlikely that all participants will be working directly on a systems-level goal. Still, all enabling technologies and fundamental science in CBEN are directed from considerations of these tangible outcomes.

In technology development, CBEN has picked two systems-level goals from among the multitude of possible ways to use nanomaterials in biological and environmental engineering.  These goals define and structure our current research:

Nanoparticles that detect and treat disease. Nanoparticles can be three-dimensional biomaterials whose small size permits them to access regions of the body not available to conventional devices. We explore a variety of particle types, and detection and treatment schemes. Drug delivery, photothermal cancer treatments and imaging contrast agents (magnetic, optical, etc.) are some examples where soluble nanoparticles play a key role.

Nanomaterials for water purification. Nanoscale materials, whether they are porous membranes or nanoscale catalytic particles, can offer the means to both remove and remediate waste. We support projects that aim to build multifunctionality into these systems, and that articulate specific and relevant environmental problems (for example, arsenic removal) as their long-term goal.  

CBEN research also responds to the significant roadblocks ahead for commercialization of nanotechnology generally, with attention to issues most relevant in and bioengineering and environmental engineering applications. This year, we have adjusted our strategic plan to account for these activities in a top-down manner strongly inspired by the systems-engineering approach to organizing technology-development-focused research centers. At the top level of this analysis, we have identified the primary barriers to successful commercialization to be inexpensive, environmentally-friendly synthesis of nanoparticles on bulk scales, and stewardship of nanotechnology-based products and research in a climate where public fears of new, invisible technologies are of serious concern to consumers. In fact, it is our center’s leadership role in these areas that has motivated our industrial affiliates to work with CBEN.

Sustainable methods for nanomanufacturing. It is critical to consider ways to make nanostructures that are practical, scalable, green, and cost-effective. Projects that seek to address one of the three elements of sustainability (economic, environmental and social) are encouraged by CBEN. This is both an enabling technology for all other systems goals, as well as an engineered system alone.

Nanotechnology stewardship.  With the rapid pace of nanotechnology’s growth, it is essential to evaluate the potential risks from its application.  Such information enhances public communication about nanotechnology, and permits policymakers to make well grounded decisions about risk management in this new industry.  Projects that address the biological and environmental effects on nanotechnology, remediation strategies for potentially hazardous materials, and the social aspects of technology acceptance are required to address this commercialization barrier.