Nanotechnology at Northwestern

Meet Vikas Nandwana, a research associate in the Dravid Group

By Mark Heiden

August 07, 2020

Vikas Nandwana is a research associate in the Dravid Group, which investigates atomic and nanoscale phenomena in advanced materials.

Where are you originally from?


Where did you complete your undergraduate degree?

Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (also known as IIT Bombay) in India. I got my PhD from University of Texas at Arlington.

What year are you now?

Currently I am a research associate in Prof. Vinayak Dravid’s group.

When did you first become interested in engineering?

Since my childhood, I was always interested in science and mathematics more than other courses. Plus, my father is an electrician. So, I used to see him fixing things. I was always curious how things are made and how we can make them even better. Hence, engineering was the obvious choice for my career.

You’re part of a team that is developing a highly porous “smart sponge” with a nanocomposite coating. What interested you in this project, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

Since the early nineties, there have been thousands of nanotechnology-based inventions but very few have been able to cross the so-called “valley of death” between research and applications in the real world. The main reason for this gap is either they are expensive to make, or they can’t be produced at a large scale. About two years ago, I developed a flow reactor that can not only make the nanomaterials at low cost and large scale but also in an environment friendly manner. That has opened a door for us in several applications to apply these nanomaterials. We chose to work on one of the immediate global concerns, the environment.

By coating the conventional sponges with a nanocomposite coating, we developed an oleophilic, hydrophobic, and magnetic (OHM) sponge that can selectively remove oil from oil/water mixture. The oil can be recovered, and the sponge can be reused. However, this is just the beginning and we have already started working to establish this as a smart sponge platform for environmental remediation. The applications are far beyond oil spills, and different types of smart sponges can be made that can capture a variety of pollutants (excess nutrients, toxic metals, particulate matter) from the water, air, and soil.

How do you explain what you study to non-scientists?

What I do involves a lot of synthesis of nanomaterials and their use in various applications. The synthesis part can be easily correlated to cooking or baking. Just like cooking, I start with some solid and liquid ingredients with calculated amounts and heat them or apply an external energy source (sonication, light, cooling), sometimes filter them, and that results in a final product.

My research has always been experimental-based, and I work on projects that have direct application in the real world. To explain them, I always use examples of things that are used in household. Take the example of the recently published smart sponge. When you take your kitchen sponge and dip coat it in a dye solution, the dye will uniformly coat the whole sponge and the color of the sponge will change. Similarly, the smart sponge is coated in nanomaterial-slurry. After coating, the sponge demonstrates specific functional properties and that could be magnetism, conductivity, or hydrophobicity.

What has been a highlight of your time at Northwestern?

I have led several inventions in the Dravid Group: (a) nanoparticles that can diagnose and treat cancer without any side effects, (b) a paper-based test strip that can detect glucose without blood pricking, (c) electrode materials for cheaper, smaller, and lighter lithium ion batteries, and (d) a reusable smart sponge that can selectively remove/capture pollutants from environment.

However, without a doubt, the highlight has been smart sponge that has been featured on the front/opening page of National Science Foundation (NSF) website, Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN), Science Daily, Forbes, MRS Bulletin, and numerous other media.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your work or your time here?

The windy conditions in winters are tough. Having coming from a hot place, it is always difficult to adjust in the extreme cold conditions. I love the summer here though.

Can you tell me about your experiences either being mentored or mentoring others?

Prof. Vinayak Dravid is a fantastic PI to work with. The best thing about the Dravid Group is that you get enough bandwidth to explore your own ideas. That is what I have been able to capitalize on, and hence have initiated several projects during my time here.

I have mentored several undergraduate and graduate students at Northwestern. The talent here is outstanding. It is an absolute pleasure to work with them and sometimes even I learn from them.

What are your hobbies outside of the lab?

I am an early bird, so I practice yoga and meditation in the morning. I am very close to nature so whenever I get a chance, I try to spend time either walking or just sitting in the natural settings. On weekends, I some spend time with my family and a few other activities like swimming, tennis, or running.