The National Science Foundation has again awarded Virginia Tech a spot in its National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI), a network of institutions whose outstanding nanoscience capabilities make them a wellspring of resources and expertise for other organizations. The award comes with five years of funding. 

Virginia Tech’s site, the National Center for Earth and Environmental Nanotechnology Infrastructure — NanoEarth, for short — was first selected for the network in 2015. The center focuses on nanomaterials that move through the Earth’s soil, air, and water systems and ultimately affect environmental and human health. It attracts students and researchers from across the U.S. and around the world.

Virginia Tech has a history of leadership at the intersection of nanotechnology and the earth sciences. Membership in the NNCI elevated the university’s visibility further: In the five years since NanoEarth joined the network, external usage at the Nanoscale Characterization and Fabrication Laboratory, the center’s physical hub, has increased by a factor of seven. 

“It’s an honor to be selected by the NSF for the second cycle of the NNCI,” said Mitsu Murayama, a professor of materials science and engineering in the College of Engineering who leads the group. “It’s a validation of the work we’ve done for the last five years and a recognition of the growing importance of Earth and environmental nanoscience, which is vital to pressing issues including clean water, clean air, global climate change, and energy development. The NNCI is at the leading edge of research, and its primary focus has been on fabrication and more populated fields of nanoscience and nanotechnology like nano-electronics, photonics, and plasmonics. NanoEarth's unique perspective continues to have a positive impact on the breadth and capability of the network." 

NanoEarth is a partnership with the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory at DOE’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The center welcomes hundreds of users every year: Small local businesses, large multinational companies, researchers from academic institutions, school groups, and a variety of other organizations. At Virginia Tech, their reach spans 25 departments across four colleges. 

Earth and environmental nanoscience is a large and growing umbrella: research at NanoEarth covers disciplines that include biology, civil engineering, agriculture, and geology. Researchers in these fields increasingly recognize that nanomaterials influence air, water, and soil systems and play crucial roles in the transmission of disease and toxic agents. But the materials in question are often found in complex, messy samples that aren’t compatible with the pristine cleanrooms usually dedicated to nanoscience research. NanoEarth has the facilities, instrumentation, and expertise to handle this messier side of nanotechnology, filling an important niche in the research community. 

This unique position has drawn in users outside the traditional purview of nanoscience — like a small woman-owned business in Appalachia developing a scalable way to decontaminate wastewater and a curator at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History analyzing proteins in dinosaur fossils. 

Murayama is joined in leading the group by five co-principal investigators: Linsey Marr, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering; Marc Michel, an associate professor of nanoscience who holds a Luther and Alice Hamlett Junior Faculty Fellowship and leads the nanoscience division in the Academy of Integrated Science in the College of Science; Amy Pruden, the W. Thomas Rice Professor in Engineering; Madeline Schreiber, a professor of hydrogeosciences and associate department head; and Peter Vikesland, the Nick Prillaman Professor in Engineering. 

The significant contributions of these faculty during the COVID-19 pandemic have underscored the value of the research nurtured at the center. Marr, an expert in airborne disease transmission, has become a leading voice in the public dialogue around the role of aerosols in transmitting the coronavirus; meanwhile, her lab’s extensive testing has provided reliable, evidence-based information about the efficacy of masks, face coverings, and other PPE. Pruden and Vikesland, who have led major clean-water initiatives, are spearheading an effort to track the virus by testing campus wastewater. Michel, a geoscientist with expertise in 3D printing, has overseen the production of thousands of nasopharyngeal swabs for COVID-19 testing. NanoEarth Associate Director Matt Hull helped lead the development and testing of face shields for the university’s football team. 

NanoEarth was launched under the umbrella of the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS), which had established the Nanoscale Characterization and Fabrication Laboratory nearly a decade earlier.

“Creating physical and academic infrastructure that’s accessible to researchers across campus and outside the university is a critical piece of accelerating and elevating Virginia Tech’s research enterprise,” said Stefan Duma, the Harry Wyatt Professor of Engineering, who directs the institute. “Nanoscience is a rapidly evolving field that impacts a huge range of disciplines, which is why it was one of ICTAS’ earliest priorities. It’s tremendously rewarding to see NanoEarth’s exceptional work earn repeated recognition from the NSF.” 

Outreach is a centerpiece of NanoEarth’s mission. Their Multicultural and Underserved Nanoscience Initiative has provided funding for travel or instrument time for more than 300 people and counting. Workshops for high school teachers have seeded nanoscience education in classrooms in Virginia, Georgia, Maryland, and Tennessee. The center’s support for student entrepreneurs inspired the development of nanotechnology-based solutions for sustainability challenges. 

The new NSF funding will allow the group to continue to invest in these initiatives and expand their outreach to underserved groups, as well as build on their existing programs to serve the center’s diverse user base. NanoEarth will also partner with other NNCI sites to strengthen the research community emerging around earth and environmental nanoscience, with a particular focus on clean water issues.