Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed a process that can produce ultrafine fibers — whose diameter is measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter — that are exceptionally strong and tough. These fibers, which the researchers say should be inexpensive and easy to produce, reportedly could be choice materials for many applications, such as protective armor and nanocomposites.
The process, called gel electrospinning, is described in a paper by MIT professor of chemical engineering Gregory Rutledge and postdoc Jay Park. The paper appears online and will be published in the February edition of the Journal of Materials Science.
In materials science, Rutledge explains, “there are a lot of tradeoffs.” Typically researchers can enhance one characteristic of a material but will see a decline in a different characteristic. “Strength and toughness are a pair like that: Usually when you get high strength, you lose something in the toughness,” he says. “The material becomes more brittle and therefore doesn’t have the mechanism for absorbing energy, and it tends to break.” But in the fibers made by the new process, many of those tradeoffs are eliminated.
“It’s a big deal when you get a material that has very high strength and high toughness,” Rutledge says. That’s the case with this process, which uses a variation of a traditional method called gel spinning but adds electrical forces. The results are ultrafine fibers of polyethylene that match or exceed the properties of some of the strongest fiber materials, such as Kevlar and Dyneema, which are used for applications including bullet-stopping body armor.