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HIGHER EDUCATION

Watch now: Teeny-tiny tech focus for these Illinois State students

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Marcos Perez and Amelia Korveziroska talk about how they apply what they learned in the lab to their classes in traditional classrooms.

NORMAL — In a lab on the third floor of Moulton Hall on the Illinois State University campus, professor Mahua Biswas and two undergraduates are doing work that will hopefully lead to even smaller, more efficient electronics for everything from cell phones to solar arrays.

Students discuss nanoparticle furnace

Amelia Korveziroska, a sophomore, and Marcos Perez, a senior, talk about the scientific furnace they use for their work with Illinois State physics professor Mahua Biswas on nanoparticles. 

Biswas, senior Marcos Perez and sophomore Amelia Korveziroska are making silicon nanostructures and nanoparticles. They are trying to develop ways to make even smaller ones. The structures they create are finding uses in fields from renewable energy and space engineering to even the possibility of creating something like an invisibility cloak.

The group largely works with structures that are less than 250 nanometers across, Biswas said. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter and the structures are about one ten millionth of an inch wide. A human hair or sheet of paper is about 100,000 nanometers thick, while human DNA is about 2.5 nanometers wide.

“Making nanoparticles of silicon of that size is very challenging,” Biswas said.

Perez has worked with Biswas for a few semesters, on creating a method for making silicon nanoparticle spheres.

“Marcos kind of established the process,” Biswas said.

Students walk through nanoparticle process

Sophomore Amelia Korveziroska and senior Marcos Perez walk through the process of creating silicon nanoparticles using glass plates lined with polymers. The two received a 2021 summer undergraduate research support grant from the school for their project. 

In his time working with Biswas, Perez has had opportunities to present both at ISU research symposiums and even international conferences, though it was held virtually due to the pandemic.

Korveziroska also looks forward to the opportunity to gain experience talking about their research later this school year. The experience is welcome, although talking in front of so many people can be intimidating, she said. Biswas pointed out that all the researchers participating had once been in the students’ shoes and that the other physics faculty members were impressed with the undergraduates.

It took the crew a little while to get their bearings and figure out a process that really seemed to work well.

“Finally we were getting really good results getting nanoparticles by summer,” Biswas said.

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The work comes with experience learning to use a lot of new equipment as well. The group starts by preparing a small glass plate and then adding a thin film of a polymer to it. The various polymers give the silicon templates to grow on. They use a machine called a spin coater to deposit the polymer  film on the plate.

Marcos Perez explains atomic layer deposition

ISU senior Marcos Perez explains how the atomic layer deposition unit works at a lab in Moulton Hall on Tuesday. The device can build up layers just a single atom tall. 

The group also has access to a relatively new tool for them, an atomic layer deposition unit.

“Think of it like an atomic 3D printer,” Perez said.

It can build up structures a layer of atoms at a time. The process allows them to replicate the organic structures from the polymer into the inorganic silicon structures. Finding ways to produce smaller structures is a big topic in parts of the physics research road right now, Biswas said.

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One tool that takes a little more work for the group to access is an imaging device that works at the nanometer level. Luckily, Biswas and more than 20 other ISU employees involved with the department have received a grant from the National Science Foundation to buy one for the school. The instruments cost around $400,000.

“We did a tremendous amount of work last year (to apply for the grant),” Biswas said.

Biswas has access to an imagining device at the Argonne National Laboratory, where she is a visiting researcher or from other physics departments. Once the images are created, Biswas sends them to Perez and Korveziroska, who use a computer application called Imagej to take measurements and see just how small the structures are. 

Korveziroska demonstrates plate preparation

ISU sophomore Amelia Korveziroska demonstrates how glass plates are prepared to receive a polymer film on Sept. 7 in a lab in Moulton Hall. The prepared plates are then used to create silicon nanoparticles. 

The group is working with researchers at Argonne and Norbert Scherer at the University of Chicago. Some funding also comes from a corporate sponsor, Biswas said, showing the private business interest in the field right now as well.

Having a research mentor who is a researcher at Argonne is a benefit for the students as well, Biswas said. She tries to take all of the students who work with her to visit the lab. So far Korveziroska and Perez have not gotten to go, but they expect they will have a chance soon as they are just waiting on security clearance.

The hands-on experience is something both Korveziroska and Perez wanted from their undergraduate experience.

“Initially I was interested in just getting involved in any kind of research,” Perez said.

His advisor ended up connecting him with Biswas and he started working with her. Korveziroska joined after her advisor encouraged her to get involved in research early on in her college career. Biswas had taught one of Korveziroska’s early physics classes, so Korvesiroska reached out to see if she could join the group.

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Over the summer, Korveziroska and Perez received funding from the Undergraduate Research Support Program, provided by the Office of Student Research at ISU.

The experience also helps them in approaching some of the more abstract work they do in traditional classroom settings, Perez said.

“It almost gives you a sense of confidence knowing, ‘OK, I’ve actually done this before,’” Perez said.

Korveziroska is taking a class discussing nanoparticles this fall, so the work is  directly applicable for her. She has a real world understanding of how those particles are made.

“(It helps with) understanding how they’re made, what they look like, it’s just very useful,” she said.

Contact Connor Wood at (309)820-3240. Follow Connor on Twitter: @connorkwood

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