Using manufacturing techniques common in the microchip industry, the MTL researchers built a one-square-centimeter array of conical tips, which they immersed in a fluid containing a dissolved plastic. They then applied a voltage to the array, producing an electrostatic field that is strongest at the tips of the cones. In a technique known as electrospinning, the cones eject the dissolved plastic as a stream that solidifies into a fiber only 220 nanometers across.
In their experiments, the researchers used a five-by-five array of cones, which already yields a sevenfold increase in productivity per square centimeter over even the best existing methods. But, Velásquez-García says, it should be relatively simple to pack more cones onto a chip, boosting productivity even more. Indeed, he says, in prior work on a similar technique called electrospray, his lab was able to cram almost a thousand emitters into a single square centimeter. And multiple arrays could be combined in a panel to further increase yields.
Surfaces, from scratch
Because the new paper was prepared for an energy conference, it focuses on energy applications. But nanofibers could be useful for any device that needs to maximize the ratio of surface area to volume, Velásquez-García says. Capacitors — circuit components that store electricity — are one example, because capacitance scales with surface area.
The electrodes used in fuel cells are another, because the greater the electrodes’ surface area, the more efficiently they catalyze the reactions that drive the cell. But almost any chemical process can benefit from increasing catalysts’ surface area, and increasing the surface area of artificial-organ scaffolds gives cells more points at which to adhere.
Another promising application of nanofibers is in meshes so fine that they allow only nanoscale particles to pass through. The example in the new paper again comes from energy research: the membranes that separate the halves of a fuel cell. But similar meshes could be used to filter water. Such applications, Velásquez-García says, depend crucially on consistency in the fiber diameter, another respect in which the new technique offers advantages over its predecessors.
Existing electrospinning techniques generally rely on tiny nozzles, through which the dissolved polymer is forced. Variations in operating conditions and in the shape of the nozzles can cause large variation in the fiber diameter, and the nozzles’ hydraulics mean that they can’t be packed as tightly together.
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