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Nanotechnology and Environment

December 04, 2001

HOUSTON -- Whether new nanotechnologies that can help clean up the environment might also harm it will be addressed during a workshop at Rice University Dec. 10. Titled "Nanotechnology and Environment: An Examination of the Potential Benefits and Perils of an Emerging Technology," the free workshop is open to the public.

"Emerging technologies present new opportunities for improving the human condition, but they also have the potential for unforeseen negative environmental consequences," said Mark Wiesner, director of Rice's Energy and Environmental Systems Institute (EESI), which is co-sponsoring the workshop with the Office for Science and Technology of the French Embassy USA.

Wiesner cites Freon as an example. This chemical was hailed as an important advance in refrigeration because it was nontoxic and nonflammable. It replaced highly toxic compounds that had caused numerous accidental deaths from their use in home refrigerators. But decades later, scientists discovered that chlorofluorocarbons such as Freon endangered Earth's ozone layer.

"Nanotechnologies hold great promise for creating new means of detecting pollutants, cleaning polluted waste streams, recovering materials before they become wastes and expanding available resources," Wiesner said. "But the nanotechnology industry is just now emerging, so we need to question whether it presents new environmental challenges so that the products of nanochemistry do not become dangerous environmental pollutants."

Rice is hosting the workshop in affiliation with its new Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, one of six major Nanoscale Science and Engineering Centers recently announced by the National Science Foundation and the first to focus on applications of nanoscience to biology and the environment.

Nanotechnologies involve materials that are one-billionth of a meter. Research at the Rice center will focus on the use of nanomaterials in water-based systems, ranging in size from biomolecules and cells to whole organisms and the surrounding environment. New nanostructured membranes are being developed for potable water treatment, treatment of hazardous materials and environmental analysis. Such membranes might be used to improve water quality while providing a higher level of security to water-treatment systems.

"We're bringing together researchers from Rice and leading French research institutions in the area of nanotechnology and environment with nanochemistry and environmental researchers to discuss how nanotechnologies might be used to protect our environment and the potential dangers they pose," Wiesner said.

Among the scheduled presenters are Richard Smalley, recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize for chemistry and director of the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice, and Neal Lane, a university professor at Rice who served as President Bill Clinto's science and technology adviser.

Topics to be addressed in presentations at the workshop include:
  • carbon nanotubes;
  • mineral nanoparticles;
  • nano-engineering chemical sensors for environmental applications;
  • nanostructured membranes; environmental quality on the "Nano-Coast;"
  • transport of nanoparticles in the environment;
  • potential for facilitated transport of contaminants by nanomaterials; potential for bio-uptake and bio-accumulation of nanoparticles; and
  • implications of nanotechnology for environmental policy and society.

The workshop will be held from 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. in Anne and Charles Duncan Hall, McMurtry Auditorium, 6100 Main Street. A reception and poster session will be held from 5 to 6 p.m. Preregistration is not required.

For a complete list of speakers and the times of presentations, see EESI's Web site,

Rice University

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