Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a new way to produce ultrafine polymer nanofibers with superior strength and flexibility and fewer defects. The scientists at MIT’s Department of Chemical Engineering, led by Gregory Rutledge and his post-doctoral fellow Jay Park, developed a new hybrid process that combines conventional gel spinning and electrospinning methods, both of which have limitations.
Gel spinning can produce high-performance fibers that are strong and have excellent mechanical properties, however, it can’t mass produce fibers to sub-micron dimensions. Electrospinning, on the other hand, is used to produce ultrafine fibers for many different applications, but the process can’t produce fibers with high mechanical resilience.
The new gel electrospinning method produces ultrafine nanofibers that have mechanical properties superior to those produced through traditional electrospinning. The nanofibers made by the new hybrid method also have a higher specific surface area and are tougher than high-performance fibers produced by other methods.
How Does the New Fabrication Process Work?
According to information published online by the MIT Technology Licensing Office, “…a polymer filament is formed by electrospinning at elevated temperature. During this process, the filament undergoes electrostatically driven drawing and whipping processes that stretch it and reduce its diameter to sub-micron levels.”
The process takes place under elevated temperatures, unlike traditional electrospinning, which causes the filament to go through a gel transition as it is being stretched, so it can be stretched thinner while still retaining high-performance characteristics.
How Can These Nanofibers Be Used?
The MIT researchers believe their fibers are superior to other nanofibers currently on the market and that they can be useful for many different applications. Nanofibers are already used in many industries. Here are several examples:
- Medicine – Nanofibers of biodegradable polymer material are being used for many different applications in the medical field, including use for wound dressings, drug delivery, enzyme immobilization and research in the field of tissue engineering.
- Apparel – Nanofibers are used in many types of clothing, including protective clothing for firefighters and outdoor wear for protection against extreme temperatures and weather conditions.
- Food – Nanofibers with their higher thermal stability are used to stabilize and maintain food quality by stabilizing food additives that are susceptible to light, oxygen and heat.
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