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Nanofibers & Nanotechnology in Textiles

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The next big thing in textile may not be very big. In this lesson, we are going to explore tiny compounds called nanofibers and see how they might change the future of textiles.

Nanofibers

Think of a meter stick. It shows a hundred centimeters, or a little over three feet. Now think of the smallest unit marked on that meter stick, the millimeter - or one thousandth of a meter. That's pretty small. But can you even imagine a billionth of a meter?

Well, a nanometer is just that - a unit of measurement equal to one billionth of a meter. That's so tiny that a single nanometer is only about 3 or 4 atoms wide. Now, the obvious question with nanometers is this: why in the world would we ever need such a ridiculously minuscule unit of measurement?

Well, believe it or not, this unit is actually used in the textile industry. Thanks to modern technology, we now have the ability to create nanofibers, defined as fibers with a width of 100 nanometers or less. Despite their size, these itty-bitty fibers can be designed to do some pretty incredible things. The next huge breakthrough in textiles may just be the smallest one yet.

Nanofibers are microscopic in size
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Nanofabrics

Nanofibers are pretty incredible. Since they must be synthetically produced, they can be customized for various purposes. Some are made to conduct electricity, some to conduct or resist heat, others to be as strong and inflexible as possible.

What the nanofibers are capable of basically comes down to how they are made and used. Most nanofibers are made by a process called electrospinning, in which a polymer (plastic) solution is spun at very high speeds and exposed to electrostatic forces, pulling the polymers into extremely thin fibers. It's the polymer solution that will determine the ultimate properties of the nanofiber.

A diagram of electrospinning for the scientifically-inclined
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The nanofibers themselves are then combined into a woven or synthesized mesh called a nanofabrics. Nanofabrics can include fabrics made entirely of nanofibers, but more often describe fabrics made from other materials which are enhanced with nanofibers.

Often, the nanofibers are woven into the fabric, but nanofabrics may also be created by directly applying the polymer solution to the existing fabric. When this happens, the tiny nanoparticles in the solution bond with the normal fibers and reinforce them, making them stronger or water resistant or whatever that polymer is designed to do.

Nanofibers in Textiles

Imagine working in the textile industry, and learning that microscopic fibers could be added to your fabrics to basically make them do whatever you want. It's an exciting thought, and many people believe that nanofibers could be the future of textiles.

Already, nanofibers and polymer solutions of nanoparticles are being used in a variety of ways:

  • to make fabrics resistant to water or liquids, which is useful in upholstery, sports, etc
  • to create heat-resistant fabrics for uses in fire fighter's suits and construction.
  • to kill bacteria, giving it major applications in the medical fields. Some innovators have even proposed creating bacteria-resistant clothing for daily wear.

Perhaps the most promising use of nanofibers in daily textiles is the ability to created tiny fibers that conduct electricity. By integrating these nanofibers into clothing, for example, garments could conduct electricity in a controlled way and thus become integrated with other forms of technology.

Imagine being able to text somebody by tapping on your jeans, or monitoring a patient's vitals with their gown. The entire garment is not conducting electricity, just the nanofibers are. This field of nanotechnology is one that is gaining steam as more people look to nanofibers as the future of what our textiles can do.

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