Someday when you pick up your new thinner, faster smartphone or tablet, you might be grasping technology derived from nanostructures synthesized in an Illinois State University laboratory.

Through a tedious process akin to cooking a seemingly invisible meal, physics students Amelia Korveziroska and Marcos Perez are whipping up nanoparticles thousands of times smaller than the width of a human hair follicle using a spin coater, centrifuge, and furnace, among other tools.

student using lab scale
Senior physics major Marcos Perez measures polymer for a sample in the Biswas Group’s applied nanomaterials research lab.

With guidance and mentorship from Assistant Professor of Physics Dr. Mahua Biswas, the research group is creating inorganic nanostructures derived from various polymers—a substance commonly used to make plastics. They meticulously document the fabrication process and the characteristics of their newly created structures, which have the potential to be utilized in emerging applications such as compact circuit boards, data storage devices, and solar cells. For specialized analysis, Biswas and her students visit Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont, where Biswas is a visiting research scientist.

Korveziroska and Perez don’t know if or when their creations will be adopted by industries, but it’s possible that one of their nanostructures will become a key ingredient for future technology. “The work in itself is the reward,” said Perez, a senior physics major who hopes to eventually earn a Ph.D. and start his own research group. “I genuinely enjoy what I’m doing.”

Drawn together by a shared desire to conduct hands-on research, Korveziroska and Perez teamed up in June 2021. When Korveziroska stepped into Biswas’ Moulton Hall lab, it was her first on-campus experience following a freshman year of remote learning due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

“I remember the first time I saw a centrifuge and how it worked—I was amazed,” said Korveziroska, a sophomore physics engineering major who aspires to work for NASA. “Seeing all the lab equipment, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I am actually doing research.’ And it felt like I was actually contributing something to the world.”

student holding vial
Sophomore physics engineering major Amelia Korveziroska prepares a sample, using a polymer, in the Biswas Group’s applied nanomaterials research lab.

Funded by an Undergraduate Research Support Program Award, Korveziroska and Perez spent nearly every weekend throughout the summer synthesizing silicon nanoparticles in Biswas’ lab—another project that has continued for the group. Their samples are initially characterized under an optical beam in Assistant Professor of Physics Dr. Uttam Manna’s lab and sent to University of Chicago researchers who are studying optical trapping. Perez likens the concept of trapping to a science fiction movie.

“You know how they have tractor beams that can lift someone off the ground into the UFO? So, you can basically make tractor beams but for really small things,” Perez said. “You can make light move physical objects.” University of Chicago researchers use lasers in their efforts to trap and manipulate nanoparticles, including those created by Korveziroska and Perez.

“From day one, these two students were really motivated,” Biswas said. “They wanted to do it. Now, you look at how much they are doing and how much they are contributing.”

Both residents of the Chicago suburbs, Korveziroska and Perez spent their weekdays working summer jobs—Korveziroska as a nanny and Perez as a tent installer. Each Friday afternoon, Perez made the 40-minute drive to pick up Korveziroska before navigating his Subaru Impreza Sport down I-55 to Normal for a weekend of lab work with Biswas.

“Even though I was down here working on weekends, it felt like a break,” Perez said. “When you’re setting up tents in the sun all day, you’re like, ‘OK, I can’t wait to go to the lab.’”

Once classes resumed in the fall, Korveziroska and Perez continued collaborating with Biswas, shifting their focus from nanoparticles derived from silicon to nanostructures made from polymers.

The research duo balances their lab work with classes and other extracurricular activities. They can often be found in the Tri-Towers basement during late-evening hours, eyes focused on their laptop screens, as they measure and document the distance between particles in images of their nanostructure samples.

microscopy image of silicon particles
Silicon nanoparticles fabricated in the Biswas Group’s applied nanomaterials research lab are studied through microscopy.

“It’s definitely a fun thing,” Korveziroska said. “I’ll measure from the center of this particle to the next one. And then from that one, I will work adjacent.”

Korveziroska, Perez, and Biswas plan to publish their findings—a rare opportunity for undergraduate physics students.

Biswas, who joined Illinois State in 2020, is already expanding her lab’s capabilities. She recently secured National Science Foundation (NSF) funding for a nearly $400,000 scanning electron microscope that will provide detailed images of the nanostructures being created in her lab. Samples previously had to be driven to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for microscopy.

“We’ll be able to make any sample any time we want and go to the next room to see—through the scanning electron microscope—how to optimize the process,” Biswas said. She is looking forward to continuing her collaboration with Korveziroska and Perez while hoping to add a few more students to the research group.

Korveziroska is grateful to be part of the team. She said making tiny particles feels like a huge step as she looks toward the future. “Actually being here in the lab, papers being published, and the possibility that things I’ve made could maybe one day influence tomorrow—sometimes it’s amazing to think about.”