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Researchers land $20 million grant to explore nanotechnology

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Working on the toxicity of nanoparticles are, from left, recent graduate Kadir Hussein, third-year graduate student Joseph Buchman, sophomore Kyle Johnson, and third-year graduate student Sunipa Pramanik.

University of Minnesota researchers are part of a team of researchers from the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology (CSN) who have received a new $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation to evaluate the impact of nanotechnology on the environment and living things.

University of Minnesota Professor Christy Haynes, a leading researcher in the growing field of nanotoxicology, is the center’s associate director. The multi-institutional research center is based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Nanotechnology involves the use of materials at the smallest scale, including the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. Products that use nano-scale materials range from beer bottles to car wax, solar cells, and electric and hybrid car batteries. While there are already hundreds of products that use nanomaterials in various ways, 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 are: How is this going to impact bacteria and other organisms in the environment? What do these particles do?” said Center Director and UW-Madison Professor Robert Hamers. “The purpose of the center is to explore how we can make sure these nanotechnologies come to fruition with little or no environmental impact."

In addition to UW-Madison and the University of Minnesota, scientists from UW-Milwaukee, 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 Georgia Tech. One of the new principal investigators joining the team is Professor Erin Carlson from the UMN Department of Chemistry. With expertise in molecular synthesis and mass spectrometry, Carlson brings tools and techniques that will help the team to investigate and control molecular-level chemical and biological interactions with nanoparticles.

Training ground for students

Haynes said that the center provides a great training for students in groundbreaking new areas. They suggest and pursue innovative research foci, which they then collaboratively work on with the center’s other diverse researchers and institutions with expertise not only in chemistry, but also in biology and ecology. Students also have opportunities to explore their research ideas during internships with partner companies and with the center’s student-initiated seed grants.

In Haynes’ laboratory, for example, third-year University of Minnesota graduate student Joseph Buchman is among the researchers investigating how coatings on iron oxide nanoparticles influence the toxicity of the nanoparticles. These iron oxide nanoparticles are currently used in consumer products such as speakers and also have been approved for clinical use.

“If it is toxic, why is it toxic?” said Buchman. “How can we change the design rules for the coating agent or for the nanoparticle to make it less toxic and harmful to the environment?”

Empowering student leaders

The center’s student researchers are also empowered to be leaders. Ian Gunsolus, a fifth-year graduate student working with Haynes, has emerged as one of those leaders. He recently posed a hypothesis about engineered nanoparticles interacting selectively with lipopolysaccharides, which are large molecules found on the surface of many bacteria that are critical in the food web. His collaborative experiments with other CSN researchers support this hypothesis. Understanding the molecular underpinning of these interactions is critical to the design of nanomedicines and antimicrobials that do not have adverse impacts on the environment. This research continues in collaboration with CSN labs at the University of Wisconsin, Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL). Ian recently had the opportunity to do an eight-week laboratory exchange at the PNNL to continue exploring these critical interactions.

Real-world applications

As the center enters this next phase of research, Haynes said that she is excited about the opportunities to study real-world applications that use nanoparticles such as electric car batteries. The center’s overall goal is “benign by design”—striving to determine and then minimize or eliminate the nanoparticles’ biological and environmental impacts while maintaining their technological advantages. To help fulfill that goal, 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 says. “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.”

Engaging the general public

The general public can engage with the CSN’s research progress and activities through the CSN’s blog at The center uses this blog as a key component of its outreach to the broader community and a professional development tool for the student researchers. The bloggers transform their science into language that can be understood by the general public. They invite and sometimes answer questions that have come to them from the informal scientific community. The center’s outreach will expand to include Podcasts and TedEd-style videos.

Special honor for four co-founders

Recently, four co-founders of the CSN, including Haynes, Rebecca Klaper from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Catherine Murphy from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and Gayla Orr from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, were honored with a "100 Inspiring Women in STEM" award and featured in the September 2015 issue of Insight into Diversity. The CSN is composed of nearly 50 percent women, the majority of whom are involved in chemistry. These leaders were lauded for creating a welcoming climate within the center that encourages open and regular discussions on bias and gender-based differences, networking, and confidence. The women were also honored for their contributions to their scientific fields, collectively publishing more than 400 papers, giving talks around the world on their science, and working on issues related to women in STEM fields.

Read the University of Minnesota's news release.

The CSN’s funding is through the NSF’s competitive Centers for Chemical Innovation Program (CCI), which funds centers focused on major, long-term fundamental chemical research challenges. CCIs integrate research, innovation, education, and informal science communication and broaden participation of underrepresented groups.