January 26, 2011 — Environmental and scientific agencies in the United States and the United Kingdom have formed a joint $5 million scientific effort to develop new risk-management tools that government officials can use to effectively regulate nanomaterials.
The Nanomaterial Bioavailability and Environmental Exposure (Nano-BEE) Consortia includes investigators from three universities each in the US and UK. The consortia’s US partners include Rice, Clemson University and the University of California, Davis. UK partners include the University of Birmingham, Napier University and the University of Exeter, as well as the Natural History Museum of London.
"Regulators need tools that will allow them to look at a wide variety of nanomaterials and rapidly identify the most significant potential problems for a specific nanomaterial in a specific location," said lead US investigator Vicki Colvin of Rice University. "This consortia will model how the local environmental chemistry influences the availability of nanomaterials. We expect to see a lot of variability: What is safe in one area may be unsafe someplace else."
Colvin, Rice’s Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor of Chemistry and director of Rice’s Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology, said the consortia hopes to produce a "plug-and-play" tool that will allow regulators to enter information about the size and type of nanomaterial, local water-chemistry conditions, soil types and the like. The tool would then tell how much of a particular product could be safely released in that location.
Regulation based on sound science and validated models will help accelerate nanotechnology innovation, Colvin said. "The worst thing for an emerging technology is to be faced with uncertainty. This consortium will provide a predictable and quantitative framework for regulation that companies and the public can have confidence in," she said.
"Nanotechnology holds great potential to improve the quality of all our lives and to have a revolutionary impact on many disciplines," said co-investigator Pedro Alvarez, the George R. Brown Professor of Engineering and chair of Rice’s Department of Engineering. "Unfortunately, many promising technologies and policies have created unintended collateral damage in the past. It’s important that we take a proactive approach to risk assessment."
"This collaborative project will provide the scientific underpinning for models to understand where nanoparticles go in the environment under what conditions and how they affect environmental organisms once there," said lead UK investigator Jamie Lead, a professor of environmental nanoscience at the University of Birmingham. "The outcomes will have huge importance for the safety and sustainability of the nanotechnology industry."
The U.K.’s Science and Innovation team in Houston, part of the Foreign and Commonwealth office, helped facilitate interactions between scientists at Rice and in the UK with workshops and trans-Atlantic visits. May Akrawi, HM Consul and head of the team, said, "We are delighted to hear of this award and look forward to continuing the long tradition of Rice’s partnership in nanotechnology research with the UK."
Colvin said the consortia hopes to deliver speedy results by modifying existing and accepted scientific models of how nanoparticles circulate through biological systems. "Silver gives us a good starting place," she said. "If we could capitalize on 20 years of silver bioavailability models — which are already being used to set regulatory policy in the US — we could save a lot of time."
Kristen Kulinowski, a senior faculty fellow in chemistry at Rice, is a co-investigator. Rice’s Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology is coordinating the effort at the university.
The project, part of an $11 million US-UK nanotechnology research program, is jointly funded by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and the UK Natural Environment Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Medical Research Council, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and Department of Health and Environment Agency.
The Science & Innovation Team in Houston is part of the United Kingdom’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office network of global science attachés. http://ukinusa.fco.gov.uk/science.