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Nanofiber Marks The Beginning Of Manufacturing Revolution, Study Says

Apr 24, 2013 03:22 PM EDT

Cars, bridges and airplanes are just a few items that could get a whole lot lighter without sacrificing any of their strength, thanks to a new nanowire developed by engineers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

“Whatever is made of composites can benefit from our nanofibers,” said the team’s leader Yuris Dzenis, in a press release.

The invention directly challenges the long-held belief that when it comes to structural materials, strength – the ability of a material to carry a load - will come at the expense of its toughness, or ability to break it.

This is because the more an object is able to deform, or change shape, the harder it is to break it (think of a rubber ball). However, such flexibility is typically thought to be mutually exclusive an object’s ability to carry heavy loads.

By creating an exceptionally thin nanofiber made from a synthetic polymer related to acrylic, researchers believe they have found a loophole in this conventional wisdom.

Essentially, the researchers found that as the fiber grew thinner, not only did it grow stronger, but tougher as well.

Dzenis suggests that the thoughness comes from the nanofibers’ high amorphous regions, which allow the molecular chains to move around more and thus absorb energy more effectively.

The discovery, Dzenis said, could revolutionize manufactured goods by offering a lightweight option that is equally as safe as heavier ones.

The process was accomplished through a technique called electrospinning, which involves applying high voltage to a polymer solution until a small jet of liquid ejects. This in turn results in a continuous length of nanofiber.

Co-authors included Dimitry Papkov, Yan Zou, Mohammed Nahid Andalib and Alexander Goponenko of the University’s Department of Mechanical Materials

Engineering as well as Stephen Z. D. Cheng of the University of Akron, Ohio.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Air Force Office of Scientific Research and a U.S. Army Research Office Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative grant.

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