A primer at the 5th annual Greener Nano Conference

PORTLAND, Ore. -- (June 18, 2010) -- Nanotechnology is now the top applied-science priority in the world, and that effort is being led by industry but in strong collaboration across disciplines. However, putting undergraduate-level students into nanotechnology's adoption of green chemistry principles remains vitally important.

Those messages were among many that were delivered June 16 to opening-day participants of the fifth annual Greener Nano Conference sponsored the Safer Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing Initiative (SNNI) of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI).

About half of the conference's more-than-100 participants from both industry and academia attended the opening Greener Nano 101 Workshop designed to introduce them to issues and challenges facing efforts to incorporate green chemistry principles into the still-ongoing discovery phases of nanotechnology. More technical discussions were pursued on June 17-18. The event was held at UO Portland.

Image of Skip Rung, ONAMI directorNoting that the Pacific Northwest has become known as the Silicon Forest, ONAMI Director Skip Rung said that nanotechnology could help raise the tax base of the state, boost workers' incomes and provide jobs for future generations. The potential jobs, he said, translate to good news for the region's blue-collar workers who could see new opportunities in manufacturing.

The potential downside, he noted, are issues involving risk, referring specifically to changes in behavior of materials as they are reduced in scale. He noted that as materials are reduced in size, interactions occur at surface levels that are not well understood. Harnessing the science of nanotechnology, he said, will provide durable and value-added benefits.

Today, Rung said, billions of research dollars from both governments and industry sources are pouring into nanotechnology-related projects around the world. Nanotechnology, he added, "is not an industry; it is about making materials," and those materials offer such benefits as clean energy, drinkable water, medical diagnostics and therapies and an enduring sustainable world.

Image of Jim HutchisonJim Hutchison, a University of Oregon chemistry professor and founding director of SSNI, addressed the potential risks, saying that nationally there is a lack of consensus on what to do in terms of regulating the nanotechnology industry.

Risk, he said, is a function of hazardous exposure, but designing materials with green chemistry can reduce potential problems. He noted that the use of zebrafish embryos to test newly created nanoparticles for toxicological, biological and ecological risks is helping researchers identify areas to avoid in product design.

Hutchison also described his lab's successful building of gold nanoparticles with green chemistry so that waste in production was reduced dramatically. Green chemistry should apply "across the whole of a product's life cycle," he said.

Safety and regulation were the focus of a talk by Richard Denison of the Environmental Defense Fund. He specifically addressed proposed reforms now being considered by the U.S. Senate and House to update the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976.

Essential to any reforms is how nanomaterials are defined -- as existing products because they are made with already regulated chemicals or new materials because such nanoforms will have significantly a wide range of new potential uses -- he said.

Denison called on reforms that promote the use of green chemistry, as well as providing for the tracking of nanomaterials once they are in the marketplace.

Image of Lallie McKenzieWhile private industry may be taking the lead in nanotechnology efforts, the UO's Lallie McKenzie, a postdoctoral research associate in chemistry, made it clear that "academia offers support for green nanotechnology" and that it is vital to build developments in the nanosciences from the bottom up.

Green nanoscience, she said, can prevent waste, reduce hazards and lead to renewable materials. "At the University of Oregon, we have modeled and taught the process for implementing green nanotechnology," she said.

It is vital, she stressed, to get the idea of green nanotechnology into university labs where students can grow with the process. She particularly stressed the need to introduce the green approach to young undergraduates in chemistry, who "don't know that something doesn't work, they will find a way to make things work."

McKenzie earned her doctorate in 2009 under the mentorship of Hutchison. Along the way she won the Kenneth G. Hancock Memorial Award for her efforts to apply green chemistry principles. She now is part of the UO's new nanoscience open-research initiative in the Lokey Laboratories.

In her doctoral research, McKenzie told conference participants, she set out to improve the synthesis of gold nanoparticles. She showed a five-second video that captured the chemical reaction involved in early efforts but left no time or ability to monitor and discover exactly what happened during the reaction.

By inserting "microscale flow reactors" she was able to exert more control over the pivotal chemical reaction in the synthesis and study precisely what was happening. In the end, she said, "We were able to optimize the synthesis of a single product." The result: gold nanoparticles made much more cheaply, with precise control over atom structure and a dramatic increase in yield.

Research and education in the university environment, she said, will help fuel innovation, allowing for intense focus in the discovery stage of an idea. Academia, she said, "can help get us there."

Other speakers in the Greener Nano 101 workshop were Scott Sweeney of the nanoscience division of Life Technologies in Eugene, John Miller of Dune Sciences, a UO technology spinoff, and Scott Butner of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.