Deakin researchers make the extra small, extra strong
14 September 2009
Being able to swing through the air like Spiderman on strands of 'spider silk' may be one step—or swing—closer with researchers at Deakin University discovering a way to strengthen plastic nanofibres, ultra-fine fibres much thinner than a human hair, with one of the world's strongest materials, carbon.
Deakin postdoctoral research fellow Dr Minoo Naebe, whose PhD research resulted in the discovery, said the added strength could open up the plastic, or polymer, nanofibres to new uses.
"Although polymer nanofibres have a certain strength, they have not been strong enough for some potential applications. Our research looked at how carbon nanotubes—tiny graphite tubes which are one of the strongest materials ever discovered—could be used to strengthen polymer nanofibres.
"Polymer nanofibres are created through a process called electrospinning, which uses an electrical charge to draw very fine fibres from a liquid, in this case polymer solution. The idea was that if the polymer could form a shell, or crystallise, around the carbon nanotube, it would strengthen the nanofibre. Electrospinning is a very fast process and at first we thought it may be too rapid for the polymer to crystallise around the carbon nanotubes. But, in what we believe is a world-first, our research showed that crystallisation happens within fast-drawn polymer nanofibres," she said.
Dr Naebe believes the ultra-fine nanofibres have the potential to change our lives.
"I think polymer nanofibre technology, like the internet, will revolutionise the way we live. It has the potential to improve technologies in medicine, energy, security, the environment and more. Tiny, powerful batteries; clothing that protects against chemical and biological hazards; filters to purify air; tissue scaffold implants to help repair injuries—all of these are potential nanofibre applications."
Some of the potential applications Dr Naebe describes seem more exotic than others.
"Who knows, perhaps one day nanofibres strengthened with carbon nanotubes will help real 'spider' men to soar!"
The Deakin researchers also discovered techniques for achieving additional strength.
"We found that nanofibre strength is increased even further through simple post-manufacture treatments like soaking nanofibres reinforced with carbon nanotubes in alcohol, making the nanofibres 400 per cent stronger than previously possible," Dr Naebe said.
She said the research has been well-received by the scientific community.
"We have received positive feedback from international scientists regarding the light this research sheds on the interaction between the nanotubes and the host polymer and its potential to assist others to develop more effective carbon nanotube composite nanofibres."
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