Nanoscience and nanotechnology: Solving big ideas by thinking small

Bose and Bothun
Professors Arijit Bose and Geoffrey Bothun are researching nanoparticles that can clean up oil spills.

Sometimes big things come in small packages. At the University of Rhode Island, engineers are solving big problems with particles thinner than a strand of human hair.

Nanoscience research at the University promises to improve targeted drug delivery, clean oil spills and produce better batteries crucial to everything from electric cars to cell phones.

“What is interesting about these projects is that we are trying to solve big problems with very small things, and the implications of our research can be quite significant,” chemical engineering Professor Arijit Bose says.

Research at the University is creating “smart” nanoparticles capable of self-assembly and direction. Intelligent particles used in drug delivery will attack only cancerous cells and bypass healthy ones.

To build such particles, several College of Engineering professors and students are reaching out across the University to colleagues in pharmacy, bioscience and chemistry.

“Nanotechnology has applications in nutraceuticals, pharmaceuticals, paints, materials and inks,” pharmacy Assistant Professor David Worthen says. “It’s a fairly new but enormously growing field.”

As the field expands, researchers are also exploring the health and environmental consequences of injecting millions of particles into the human body or deploying microscopic particles to clean up oil.

Bose and Associate Professor Geoffrey Bothun are leading a team developing safer alternatives to oil dispersants such as Corexit. Bothun is studying using nanoparticles of benign silica (sand) and FDA-approved surfactants, which force oil to emulsify. Meanwhile Bose and his team want to turn carbon black into the go-to dispersant. Generally considered safe, the particles emulsify oil, absorb toxic polycyclic-aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are widely available and are inexpensive.

To uncover all the potential consequences, researchers bound together. In 2010, the U.S. Congress chartered the Rhode Island Consortium for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, a partnership between URI and Brown University. The consortium, co-directed by Bose, includes 20 faculty and 50 students from across the University, all thinking small in order to think big.

“It’s the next big technological revolution, being able to create such small and smart particles,” Bothun says.

Dr. Arijit Bose
Distinguished Professor, chemical engineering
Crawford Hall
16 Greenhouse Road
Kingston, RI 02881 USA

Geoffrey Bothun
Associate professor, chemical engineering
Crawford Hall
16 Greenhouse Road
Kingston, RI 02881 USA