NSF sustainable nanotechnology center includes Georgia Tech researchers

Georgia Tech is among a dozen institutions that are part of the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, a $20 million research center focusing on the molecular mechanisms by which nanoparticles interact with biological systems. Based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the center has been awarded an additional five years of funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to expand its existing operations.

Prof. Rigoberto Hernandez
Georgia Tech is part of the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, a $20 million NSF research center focusing on the molecular mechanisms by which nanoparticles interact with biological systems. Shown is Rigoberto Hernandez, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Chemistry and Biochemistry who will contribute expertise on how particles aggregate, assemble and interact with one another to create larger structures. (Credit: Rob Felt, Georgia Tech)

Nanotechnology involves the use of materials at the smallest scale, including the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. Products that use nanoscale materials range from beer bottles and car wax to solar cells and electric and hybrid car batteries. If you read your books on a Kindle, quantum dots, a semiconducting material manufactured at the nanoscale, underpin the high-resolution screen.

And while there are already hundreds of products that use nanomaterials in various ways, there are still lots of unknowns about how these modern materials and the tiny particles they are composed of interact with the environment and living things.

“The purpose of the center is to explore how we can make sure these nanotechnologies come to fruition with little or no environmental impact,” explained Robert Hamers, director of the center and a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin Madison. “We’re looking at nanoparticles in emerging technologies.”

In addition to UW-Madison, scientists from UW-Milwaukee, the University of Minnesota, the University of Illinois, Northwestern University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have been involved in the center’s first phase of research. Joining the center for the next five-year phase are Tuskegee University, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Iowa, Augsburg College, and the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Georgia Tech’s contributions will be in the areas of theoretical computational chemistry and assessment of the center’s overall impact. Rigoberto Hernandez, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Chemistry and Biochemistry, will contribute expertise on how particles aggregate, assemble and interact with one another to create larger structures. Lizanne DeStefano, a professor in the Georgia Tech School of Psychology and director of the Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC) at Georgia Tech, will help assess the center’s impacts, both internally and externally, for students and other key stakeholders.

“One of our mandates is to develop a systematic approach for using theoretical and computational tools to select different nanomaterials or modifications of nanomaterials to meet desired properties,” said Hernandez. “We will help understand the multi-scale problem, which includes understanding the chemical properties at the size scale from a few Angstroms – where you can literally see atoms within molecules – all the way to the meter scale where you must address the behavior of an entire organism.”

One of three theoretical and computational chemists who will be part of the center’s second phase, Hernandez is looking toward development of a computational framework for modifying nanomaterials and predicting the extent to which they would provide a targeted function or behavior. An example of such a function might be energy conversion and related transformations necessary in future generations of fuel cells.

“While the research impact of the center is important, its most long term impact will involve training the next generation of scientists and researchers who will take leadership roles in industry and academe,” said DeStefano. “We want to create innovative educational programs at undergraduate and graduate levels that integrate theory and computation and produce students with broader technical skill sets and a deep understanding of nanoparticles. The goal is to impact education at Georgia Tech and all partner institutions.”

In addition to Hernandez and DeStefano, center efforts at Georgia Tech will also involve at least two graduate students and one postdoctoral fellow.

At UW-Madison, Hamers leads efforts in synthesis and molecular characterization of nanomaterials. Much remains to be learned about how nanoparticles affect the environment and the multitude of organisms – from bacteria to plants, animals and people – that may be exposed to them.

“Some of the big questions we’re asking,” said Hamers, “are how is this going to impact bacteria and other organisms in the environment? What do these particles do? How do they interact with organisms?”

For instance, bacteria, the vast majority of which are beneficial or benign, tend to be “sticky” and nanoparticles might cling to the microorganisms and have unintended biological effects.

“There are many different mechanisms by which these particles can do things,” Hamers added. “The challenge is we don’t know what these nanoparticles do if they’re released into the environment.”

To get at the challenge, Hamers and his colleagues in the center are drilling down to investigate the molecular-level chemical and physical principles that dictate how nanoparticles interact with living things. Such studies, argues Hamers, promise a science-based understanding that can help ensure the technology leaves a minimal environmental footprint by identifying issues before they manifest themselves in the manufacturing, use or recycling of products that contain nanotechnology-inspired materials.

To help fulfill that part of the mission, the center has established working relationships with several companies to conduct research on materials in the very early stages of development.

“We’re taking a look-ahead view. We’re trying to get into the technological design cycle,” Hamers said. “The idea is to use scientific understanding to develop a predictive ability to guide technology and guide people who are designing and using these materials.”

Hernandez believes that the 21st century may be known as the “nanoparticle age” in the same way that last century was the “industrial age.” The challenge ahead, he says, is to avoid unexpected effects from these new materials and structures.

“In this century, there is little doubt that nanoparticles comprise a class of chemical compounds that are revolutionizing nearly everything that we touch, see or smell,” he said in a blog post at (EveryWhereChemistry.blogspot.com). “The challenge to chemists (and material scientists) is not just designing nanoparticles to solve particular problems, but to do so with materials that have no unintended consequences. Anticipating such unknown unknowns is a grand challenge, and the solution requires a team of scientists with expertise in making, measuring and modeling the nanoparticles in the upstream design side and in biology and ecology on the downstream side.”