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Thinking Small

Dr. Kevin McPeak's HNRS 3035 Nano-Optics Class Goes from Moths to Metamaterials
Thinking Small

An Honors student presents his poster in the atrium of Patrick F. Taylor Hall

The students of Dr. Kevin McPeak’s HNRS 3035 Moths to Metamaterials: An Introduction to Nano-Optics are getting the big picture on nanoscale optics.  

Nano-optics is all about light – specifically how light behaves on the nanometer scale. It also covers how nanometer-scale objects interact with light. In HNRS 3035, students are learning the basic principles, applications and latest advances in the field of nano-optics.

McPeak, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering who specializes in chiral plasmonic materials and holds the Gordon A. & Mary Cain Professorship, has been introducing the many topics within nano-optics to his class. He is also an Honors Faculty Fellow and recently received the LSU Alumni Association Rising Faculty Research Award

“There are a lot of different areas to look at with nanoscale optics: structural color – like why certain butterflies are blue— negative index refraction materials, bending light the wrong way,” McPeak said. “We took those different, big subject matters within this broad field of nano-optics and gradually marched through those.”

After getting acquainted with the basics, each of the students picked one area within the field and made a poster designed to introduce it to a broad audience. The poster presentation was the culmination of their semester-long studies and a way to bring this highly-specialized field to the rest of the campus community.

“They were tasked with designing a poster that would introduce a broad audience – not like a super technically optically savvy audience – but just a broad audience that we would have here to that field,” McPeak explained. “I told them to really try to angle it for the applications. Applications first, then you can talk about how this works, and the fundamentals, but get people interested in why this is important to them.”

Recently-named 2018 Goldwater Scholar and sophomore physics major, Corey Matyas, was one of the students presenting his nano-optics research at the newly opened engineering complex, Patrick F. Taylor Hall.

Dr. Kevin McPeak

“It’s a very large field. There’s a lot of very, very small things to manipulate light, but we’re each trying to go into depth about them to show them off to a general audience,” Matyas said. “There really is something for everyone here.”

Matyas’ poster was on silicon photonics.

“There are all these very small light devices, and a lot of them do really cool things. But not all of them are practical for a mass market,” Matyas said. “This one [silicon photonics] uses technologies that we already have for designing electrical circuits – things that get built a lot – to also build tiny electrical devices that are maybe cheaper and better for mass adoption.”

In addition to enjoying the subject matter throughout the semester, Matyas was excited by McPeak’s pedagogical approach.

“Dr. McPeak is an incredible lecturer. He answers questions well, has a great sense of humor, and has taught us all a lot, even coming from diverse backgrounds. We have chemical engineers, biological engineers, I’m in physics,” Matyas said. “We’ve had all sorts of people come to this class.”

What are some new developments in nano-optics worth sharing across majors and disciplines? For starters, there has been some recent buzz around the cloaking potential in nano-optics that McPeak explored with his class.

“There is this cloaking idea that I am going to hide an object, like Harry Potter. We can do that right now at microwave frequencies,” McPeak said. “This operates at much longer wavelengths, still electromagnetics but much longer wavelengths, they can cloak things in a laboratory setting at these kinds of frequencies, but no one can do it at optical wavelengths.”

Or at least not yet. The class is looking at how you take that particular technology and make it get smaller and smaller wavelengths. As for McPeak, he is excited about the future of nano-optics that his students are studying.

Corey Matyas presents his research

“You want to have a glass that’s auto-cleaning? That if dirt gets on the glass, then sunlight hits the glass and it cleans itself? Traditional photocatalysts do it with ultraviolet light, just a small portion of the spectrum – like what gives you a suntan. Now I want to expand that out the visible and infrared portion of the spectrum,” McPeak said. “I need to use different types of photocatalysts, and that starts interacting with nano-optics.” 

As he has explained in the past, this is vital research that he hopes will have some impact on society. With an audience of Honors students at his disposal, McPeak has enjoyed introducing the complex subject matter to a smaller class that gave room for more individualized attention.

“That ability to have one-on-one interactions through some challenging topics at their pace is very unique.”


Story by Sarah Procopio. 



Jacqueline DeRobertis | Communications Coordinator 

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