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Rice UniversityCBEN
Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology
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Theme 1: Nanoscience at the Wet/Dry Interface 

Nature is filled with examples of intricate molecular machinery optimized to perform complex chemical, physical, and biological processes.  CBEN’s engineered systems efforts are in many ways inspired by these natural examples, many of which utilize organic and inorganic nanomaterials and self-assembly principles to achieve their aims.  To achieve these engineered systems, however, requires a strong foundation in fundamental science which for this Center lies at the ‘wet/dry’ interface, or the interface between inorganic nanomaterials and the complex aqueous environments of living organisms.  Research in this theme – the ‘S’ in this NSEC - weaves diverse biological and chemical perspectives together to define how to understand, exploit and ultimately control nanoparticles as they interact with living organisms and the environment.
Theme 1 functions as the basic science component of CBEN—the “S” in this Nanoscience and Engineering Center (NSEC). Theme 1 projects are organized into three focal points:

  • Material chemistry and manufacturing that both compliments and enhances Theme 2 and Theme 3 engineering efforts.
  • Quantitative analytical methods and new tools to characterize the interface between nanoparticles and biological systems – in-situ and in a dynamic fashion.
  • The biology of engineered NPs – efforts that seek to describe and interpret how nanocrystals interact across length scales – from proteins to organisms.

This theme balances in its portfolio projects that feed directly into the engineering goals of CBEN with more fundamental studies that will form the foundation for any future biological or environmental use of NPs.

The fundamental science efforts in this theme are not specifically directed toward an engineering project, but their emphasis has been shaped by our experiences in the last few years with technology transfer in our two areas of engineering. For example, an ongoing issue for the use of nanomaterials in water treatment is their cost and large-scale production. Theme 1 efforts in manufacturing have generated new ways to produce these materials using readily available reactants and low infrastructure methodology. We also realize that there must be a focus on analytical methods well suited for examining the underlying physics of those properties that are essential in our systems engineering. Theme 1 thus supports the application of the latest spectroscopic tools to the many complex problems relevant to the Center. Finally, this year we brought into Theme 1 those projects in the Center that considered the interactions of engineered NPs with biological systems; formerly split between Theme 1 and Theme 2, the nanobiochemisty and nanocell projects are now more tightly linked. In return, the single-walled carbon nanotube (SWNT) efforts for biomedical applications have progressed enough that they are now in our engineering Theme 2.

While this theme does support basic science, we set specific objectives for this research area and link these to our systems goals.  An updated map reflecting the current project arrangement and scope was used to generate the table below.  As noted in the strategic plan, our emphasis on environmental impact studies will be less over the next two years and we anticipate funding patterns will change slightly as a result.

Further information on Theme 1 projects can be found in the CBEN Annual Reports.