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Small-particle frontier

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Posted September 1, 2015

The University of Iowa is joining a burgeoning research group exploring the benefits and potential risks of nanotechnology.

The UI has been added as a partner to the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology, a multi-institutional research center based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The center inked a new contract with the National Science Foundation that will provide nearly $20 million in support over the next five years.

In addition to Wisconsin-Madison, the University of Illinois, the University of Minnesota, Northwestern University, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and Wisconsin-Milwaukee are original partners in the center. The UI, along with Tuskegee University, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, Johns Hopkins University Augsburg College, and Georgia Tech, have been added to the group.

Nanotechnology involves the use of materials at the smallest scale, including the manipulation of individual atoms and molecules. Products that use nanoscale materials (a nanometer is one-billionth the width of a human hair) range from beer bottles and car wax to solar cells and electric and hybrid car batteries. While there are hundreds of products that use nanomaterials in various ways, there are still lots of unknowns about how these modern materials and the tiny particles they are composed of interact with the environment and living things.

At the UI, Sara E. Mason, assistant professor in chemistry, is one of three computational chemists to join the center.

Her research group will lead atomistic, quantum mechanical modeling and characterization of nanomaterials such as complex oxides used in battery materials and core-shell gold nanoparticles. The questions that Mason’s research will help the center address include delineating how nanoparticle structure dictates nanoparticle reactivity, what kinds of transformations nanomaterials undergo when their environment changes, and discovering the chemical pathways that lead to negative biological impacts of nanomaterials in the environment.

“While quantum chemistry and the nanoscale go hand in hand, we need the direction and constraints from experimentalists to unlock the potential of modeling complex materials in the environment,” Mason says. “Joining this team will enable us to work on systems of environmental and technological importance that we couldn’t address through theory alone. At the same time, our modeling will provide unique information about how geometry and electronic structure couple to govern nanoparticle reactivity.

“We’re one of the three groups making up the CSN’s new Theoretical and Computational Chemistry Team, and so this collaboration also offers a great opportunity to connect our modeling to simulations at longer time and length scales,” she adds.

Source: University of Iowa

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