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Freshman Research Initiative Spotlights: Crystals and Nanoparticles

Freshman Research Initiative Spotlights: Crystals and Nanoparticles

Experiential learning in the College of Natural Sciences includes the nation's largest effort to involve first-year students in meaningful research, the Freshman Research Initiative (FRI). In the spring, hundreds of first-year students join one of over 27 unique research streams for real, hands-on encounters with meaningful research questions that need answering.

Students from two Freshman Research Initiative streams, Functional Materials Based on Metal Complexes and Nanomaterials for Chemical Catalysis, use cutting-edge technology for research. They build novel, microscopic particles that hold the potential to cure cancer, detect disease, increase fuel production, help the environment, and otherwise benefit society.

Students in the Metal Complexes stream focus on synthesizing and characterizing two different types of crystal compounds: semiconductor nanoparticles and photo-luminescent lanthanides. By producing novel compounds that can increase electrical conductivity (semiconductors) and glow in certain circumstances (lanthanides), the work of the young researchers in this stream may soon find its way into the LEDs, biomarkers, and solar cells of tomorrow.

Tyler King, an FRI student mentor in the Metal Complexes stream, reflecting on his experience using x-ray crystallography to characterize his compounds, said, "The thought of seeing individual atoms as reflections on a screen was amazing to me. The thought that I could now see and correlate something on a screen to the physical world was amazing."

The budding chemists of the Nano stream also aim to produce novel compounds. They focus on creating metal nanoparticles that will serve as chemical catalysts, reacting in various circumstances, making them useful potentially for everything from disease detection to fuel production.

"Nanoparticles are really special because their ratio of surface area to volume makes them really good catalysts, so they're really good at speeding up reactions," said Meredith Ward, an FRI student mentor in the Nano stream. "And I think that's definitely a step forward for energy - for fuel cells with hydrogen, or maybe photovoltaic cells, stuff like that. And that's what we're working on right now."

Above all, FRI students value their work because of the community they create.

"It's all I want to do," King says. "Every day of my life I come in here, I want to do this, because it's a lot of fun. And I want to work with the people that I work with because they're fun people to work with."

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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

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