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Arnold School of Public Health

Mohammed Baalousha and Eric Vejerano secure nearly $1 million grant from National Science Foundation to acquire specialized state-of-the-art research instrument for UofSC

August 6, 2018 | Erin Bluvas,

Mohammed Baalousha (principal investigator), associate professor in environmental nanoscience, and Eric Vejerano (co-principal investigator), assistant professor in environmental nanoscience, within the SmartState Center for Environmental Nanoscience and Risk (CENR) and the environmental health sciences department of the Arnold School of Public Health, have been awarded nearly one million dollars from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Major Research Instrumentation Program.

This NSF funding program supports the acquisition or development of a multi-user research instrument that is otherwise too costly or not supported by other NSF programs. Its aim is to enable institutions of higher education and not-for-profit scientific/engineering research organizations to procure research instrumentation that is critical to advances in fundamental science and engineering research.

Additional benefits include capacity building to develop the next generation of research instruments and the opportunity to train students. These individuals will use their knowledge to become the next generation of scientists, designers and builders of future instrumentation.

Baalousha, Vejerano and colleagues will use the grant to purchase a time-of-flight inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometer—the first of its kind to be installed in the United States. The instrument can measure all elements in the periodic table every 30 microseconds, allowing simultaneous measurement of multi-elements in transient signals such as single particles.

The researchers will use their new research instrument for a diverse set of applications. For example, it will allow them to examine both naturally-occurring and engineered nanoparticles to better understand their properties, environmental behaviors and functions, and environmental and human health implications.

“This instrument will help us to differentiate engineered from natural nanoparticles in complex environmental samples, on a particle-per-particle basis, one of the key challenges in environmental nanotechnology field, for which I was awarded my NSF-CAREER award in 2016,” says Baalousha. “We have made significant progress on solving this challenge, and this instrument will make our task a lot easier.”

“The accurate measurements of the nature and elemental composition of atmospheric particles have been limited because we cannot measure them in their native form as they exist in the atmosphere or emitted from their sources with our current instrumentation,” says Vejerano. “But this instrument will allow us to perform experiments in a more realistic environmental scenario, which will help accelerate research in air quality.”

“This instrument, as the first of its kind available in the United States, further enhances the capabilities of CENR and the Arnold School to provide cutting-edge technologies for the detection and characterization of nanomaterials in tissues and natural environmental media at low concentrations,” says Thomas Chandler, Dean of the Arnold School.  “Drs. Baalousha and Vejerano have become quite a capable team in this focus area, as demonstrated by receipt of this nationally-competitive NSF award.”

“This award provides for an analytical technique which greatly enhances CENR’s capabilities in the area of single particle analysis of nanoparticles and will provide further impetus to allow quantification of nanoparticles in the environment,” says CENR director Jamie Lead. “Areas such as environmental concentrations, transformations and dosimetry are key questions in environmental nanoscience, and this new mass spectrometer will allow significant progress to be made.”

The team will also use the instrument to support researchers across the University of South Carolina and nationwide, including federal agencies such as the United States Geological survey, Environmental Protection Agency, and National Institutes for Standards and Technology, to fill the analytical gap in multi-element analysis of transient signals and thus address many research questions.

“Over 25 research partners have expressed interest in utilizing the instrument, and we expect to build a larger user-base in the near future,” Baalousha says. “We will also be able to provide analytical support for the NSF-funded Virginia Tech National Center for Earth and Environmental Technology Infrastructure.”

The acquisition of this spectrometer will help fill a crucial gap in the elemental analytical facilities currently available at the University of South Carolina, allowing researchers to answer scientific questions in a variety of disciplines (e.g., chemistry, physics, materials sciences, environmental nanoscience and engineering, geochemistry, paleoclimatology). The grant is the fourth of its kind to be awarded from this program to USC faculty in the past decade. Further, it will enhance the competitiveness of the United States in cutting-edge technology, and specifically nanoparticle analysis.

Consistent with both the NSF program requirements and existing ongoing goals of CENR, this instrument also will be used to educate future scientists. In particular, it provides a platform for integrating research and education through the opportunity to train K-12 students and undergraduates from underrepresented groups, enhancing lectures for undergraduate and graduate courses, preparing undergraduates for graduate studies, training graduate students for academic research careers, and serving various societal needs in high-resolution analytical chemistry.


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