Provost testifies on the commercial potential of nanotechnology before Senate Commerce subcommittee

Provost testifies on the commercial potential of nanotechnology before Senate Commerce subcommittee

Rice News staff

Rice University Provost George McLendon told a U.S. Senate panel Thursday that federally funded nanotechnology research has sparked new technologies and commercial enterprises in energy, the environment and medicine.

“We’re creating transformational technology and associated jobs,” he said, “while we’re educating the workforce to sustain and build on the U.S. lead in this rapidly developing field.”

  Pictured are Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Provost George McLendon.
  Pictured are Will Rice College senior Sailesh Prabhu, Provost George McLendon, subcommittee chair Sen. Bill Nelson, McMurtry College senior Tawfik Jarjour and Martel College senior Benjamin Chou.
  Pictured are Will Rice College senior Sailesh Prabhu, Martel College senior Benjamin Chou, Lovett College junior Joe Pullano, McMurtry College senior Mark Seraydarian, Martel College junior Teddy Grodek, Martel College senior Tom Boyd, Charles Landgraf ’75, Provost George McLendon, Brandon Mooney ’11, Brown senior Philip Tarpley, McMurtry College senior Tawfik Jarjour and Cory Kennedy, director of government relations.

McLendon, the Howard R. Hughes Provost and professor of chemistry, testified before the Science and Space Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in Washington. The hearing focused on “National Nanotechnology Investment: Manufacturing, Commercialization and Job Creation.”

McLendon described three separate examples of technologies that have led to commercial applications developed at Rice with federal funding.

Matteo Pasquali, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, joined forces with a private company to improve the efficiency of carbon nano-based electricity conduction for both local and broad grid applications. “Those kind of materials, when fully developed, can accelerate and transform the development of a smart grid,” McLendon said. That, he said, will lead to significantly less power loss as electricity is transported from generation to the end user.

Research by Rice Vice Provost for Research Vicki Colvin, a professor of chemistry and chemical engineering, and Pedro Alvarez, the George R. Brown Professor of Engineering and chair of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, led to the development of “nanorust,” which removes toxic arsenic from drinking water. The technology has been field tested in Guanajuato, Mexico, where “it’s being used to create safe drinking water where none was available previously,” McLendon said.

Finally, Jennifer West, the Isabel C. Cameron Professor of Bioengineering
and chair of the Department of Bioengineering, and Naomi Halas, the Stanley C. Moore Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, have created nanoparticles that can bind to tumors and destroy them while minimally affecting surrounding tissue. “This breakthrough depended on fundamental studies of the optical properties of nanocrystals, and resulted in a new venture-funded company with clinical trials in progress and that is helping people right now,” McLendon told the panel.

As these examples show, McLendon said, nanotechnology is “remarkable in its ability to translate fundamental discoveries on relatively short time scales into commercial practice, which improves lives worldwide and creates new high-technology and high-quality jobs right here in America.”

The National Nanotechnology Initiative, a federally funded research and development program, has been instrumental in making such research and commercialization possible, he said.

Asked by subcommittee Chair Bill Nelson, D-Fla., about “blockbuster” developments that could help persuade the public about the effectiveness of nanotechnology research, McLendon cited engineered nanoparticles built into drilling mud used in oil production. “It can help you find out what’s going on in real time, and it improves the efficiency,” he said. “There’s a company from Rice that’s doing exactly that right now and it has huge implications for our energy security.”

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who also serves on the committee, cited the role of Rice professors Richard Smalley and Robert Curl in the discovery of the buckyball — a foundation of nanotechnology. The two won the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for their pioneering research.

“I hope that we can go forward with the nanotechnology initiative with the same spirit that we have had in Texas, and that is to share information, to collaborate with the different centers of excellence to go into all the myriad fields — it’s medicine, it’s materials, it’s so many different fields of nanotechnology,” she said. “And if we do the consortia and the collaboration, that’s how we will really keep our pre-eminence in this vital field.”

Hutchison also pointed to a consortium that linked Rice to other institutions including the University of Texas at Austin, called the Nanomaterials for Aerospace Commerce Technology, which is developing technology to recharge personal digital assistants as well as powering unmanned aerial vehicles used by the military.

McLendon’s appearance is not the first testimony by a member of the Rice community on the National Nanotechnology Initiative. James Tour, the T.T. and W.F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, professor of computer science and professor of mechanical engineering and materials science, spoke to the House Science and Technology Subcommittee on Research and Science Education in April.

McLendon had his own cheering section at Thursday’s hearing: More than 10 Rice students, who are spending their summer in Washington as interns, were sitting in the gallery. Several of them joined McLendon, Rice Government Relations Director Cory Kennedy and alumnus Charlie Landgraf, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer, for lunch afterward.

To view a webcast of the Senate hearing, go to

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