U.S. Funds Effort To Study Nanotechnology's Effect on Health

Washington - The U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) has extended funding for Texas-based Rice University's Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (CBEN) with a five-year renewal worth $12 million.

Nanotechnology involves imaging, measuring, manipulating and manufacturing materials on a scale of between 1 nanometer and 100 nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter; a sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick.

Because of the small size and unique properties of nanoparticles, more research is needed to find out if nanoparticles in manufactured products can enter the human body, and if so, how long they remain.

Researchers also will study the fate and transport of nanoparticles in the environment. (See related story.)

CBEN - founded with a five-year grant in 2001 - was the first academic research center dedicated to studying the interaction between nanomaterials, living organisms and ecosystems.

"CBEN has played an active role in informing the public, lawmakers and industry about potential unintended environmental consequences of nanotechnology," said CBEN Director Vicki Colvin, professor of chemistry.

CBEN offers educational programs for science teachers and students, and encourages companies to move nanotechnology from the laboratory to the marketplace through collaborations with groups like the Rice Alliance for Technology and Entrepreneurship and the International Center on Nanotechnology (ICON).

"After five years," said Mihail Roco, NSF's senior adviser for nanotechnology, "the center not only has become a reference resource at the national and international levels, but it also defines the field itself, and how science, engineering and society converge."

CBEN's research focus is on the interface between biology and materials science.

For example, the machinery of life inside every living cell exists in a water-based environment. Nanomaterials, on the other hand, often are either insoluble or unable to function efficiently in solution.

CBEN's research aims to understand how nanomaterials function in water-based environments such as living organisms and ecosystems.

ICON, a multipartner initiative that grew out of CBEN-led activities, is addressing the potential environmental and health risks of nanotechnology.

In 2005, ICON unveiled a nanomaterial-specific Environmental, Health and Safety Database as a free public service.

For more information on U.S. policies, see Science and Technology.

The text of the press release is available on the Rice University Web site.

More information on the International Council on Nanotechnology is available on its Web site.