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More on the upcoming Materials Science revolution and "15 times stronger than steel: Scientists develops strongest, lightest glass nanofibres in the world"



January 10, 2013 – Comments (6)

One of the themes that have been in my posts for the last 2 years or so has been that we are on the cusp of a new Materials Science revolution. This is most illustrated by my posts on Graphene (which I continue to be amazed by, it is really turning so many materials concepts upside down, too many posts to list just scroll through my blog list and you will find dozens), but on many other topics as well: Efficient water splitting (see here and here), Supercapacitors (see here), Photonics (see here and here), Thermoelectrics (see here and here), aerographite (here), advanced thermal storage materials (here), novel piezo-electric usage (here), etc.

This is a new one that is near and dear to me.

In graduate level mechanical engineering work (focused on structures, mechanics of materials, and materials processes) we discuss the conundrum that engineering materials are often several hundred times weaker (strength) than they should be. There are molecular models of materials that show what the attractive force should be between molecules in various lattice configurations, and in reality we find that the materials have only a small fraction of that predicted strength. What accounts for the vast difference in predicted strength vs. observed strength is the fact that every material has defects. The lattice structure in a piece of aluminum or steel is not in fact a perfect lattice. Based on processing (rolling, forming, quenching, etc.) the molecular structure gets slightly distorted, very often due to temperature gradients during cool-down from hot forming. Other processes introduce microscopic cracks into materials called dislocations, and faults propogate along the planes of these dislocations. This progation happens at points of high stress and the study of how these 'tears' develop is the field of Fracture Mechanics.

One approach to obviate this effect is to make smaller engineering materials. A smaller part will statistically have less inclusions in them, especially if you can really control the process. This is why high strength carbon fiber is such a miracle. With Pitch based processes, graphite fibers can be manufactured with very few inclusions. Each fiber has a diameter on the order of a handful of mircometers, is bundled into a group of 2000-1000 fibers (called a tow) and the tow is woven or layed down in a ply and the ply is laminated with other plys to form carbon fiber panels.

But this post is taking the idea of the fiber to the next level. These are much smaller fibers, that are almost built molecularly. The amount of inclusions is even less in these fibers and they are built from silica and oxygen, which is extremely abundant material.

As the post says, this is creating huge excitement in a large number of industries.


15 times stronger than steel: Scientists develops strongest, lightest glass nanofibres in the world
January 10, 2013
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Globally the quest has been on to find ultrahigh strength composites, leading ORC scientists to investigate light, ultrahigh strength nanowires that are not compromised by defects. Historically, carbon nanotubes were the strongest material available, but high strengths could only be measured in very short samples just a few microns long, providing little practical value.

Now research by ORC Principal Research Fellow Dr Gilberto Brambilla and ORC Director Professor Sir David Payne has resulted in the creation of the strongest, lightest weight silica nanofibres - 'nanowires' that are 15 times stronger than steel and can be manufactured in lengths potentially of 1000's of kilometres.

Their findings are already generating extensive interest from many companies around the world and could be set to transform the aviation, marine and safety industries. Tests are currently being carried out globally into the potential future applications for the nanowires.

"With synthetic fibres it is important to have high strength, achieved by production of fibre with extremely low defect rates, and low weight," says Dr Brambilla.

"Usually if you increase the strength of a fibre you have to increase its diameter and thus its weight, but our research has shown that as you decrease the size of silica nanofibres their strength increases, yet they still remain very lightweight. We are the only people who currently have optimised the strength of these fibres.

"Our discovery could change the future of composites and high strength materials across the world and have a huge impact on the marine, aviation and security industries. We want to investigate their potential use in composites and we envisage that this material could be used extensively in the manufacture of products such as aircraft, speedboats and helicopters," he adds.

Professor Payne explains: "Weight for weight, silica nanowires are 15 times stronger than high strength steel and 10 times stronger than conventional GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic). We can decrease the amount of material used thereby reducing the weight of the object.

"Silica and oxygen, required to produce nanowires, are the two most common elements on the earth's crust, making it sustainable and cheap to exploit. Furthermore, we can produce silica nanofibres by the tonne, just as we currently do for the optical fibres that power the internet."

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6 Comments – Post Your Own

#1) On January 10, 2013 at 1:27 PM, chk999 (99.96) wrote:

I completely agree with you that discoveries in materials science is going to revolutionize pretty much everything. A lot of stuff like a space elevator goes from science fiction to reality when you can make defect free fibers in unlimited lengths.

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#2) On January 10, 2013 at 1:58 PM, binve (< 20) wrote:

Amen to that!

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#3) On January 10, 2013 at 2:15 PM, chk999 (99.96) wrote:

Flying cars may be getting towards the practical. Quadrotos are amazingly manuverable and with air traffic control software could get around the "how do we deal with all takeoffs and landings" problems from earlier ideas. Add in very light weight materials and electric power starts looking possible. You enter a destination and the software handles the co-operation with other traffic, flight and landing. This also deals with the pilot training problem. 

This could be awesome. 

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#4) On January 10, 2013 at 2:41 PM, binve (< 20) wrote:

Completed agreed. I have been following the NASA automated sky taxi idea for awhile, and in recent years avionics development has recently taken off. My friend who has an old Mooney has a really incredible portable Avionics system that he just plugs into his dash. He didn't need to spend $10s upgrading the avionics in the plane. These types of systems can be modularized and easily plugged into newer designs, like the Quadrotos. Basically a navigation module and an autopilot module. And exactly, when the weight dynamics of the fuselage/shell are changed with super lightweight materials then electric powerplants look very doable. The whole initiative looks like it is coming near a tipping point.

Just think it was just a couple of decades ago when video conferencing was prohibitively expensive. And now you can download any number of free apps and video conference on any but the slowest celluar networks. Miraculous transformation in just a couple of decades.

I think the mantra of 'where are the flying cars!?!' will be no more in a couple of decades too, certainly within my lifetime.

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#5) On January 10, 2013 at 11:19 PM, ChrisGraley (28.47) wrote:

When we figure out how to make nano-fibers on the lower end of the periodic table efficiently,we have even more amazing materials to come. It truly is a wide open science right now.

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#6) On January 10, 2013 at 11:21 PM, binve (< 20) wrote:

Totally agreed Chris. There are so many more advancements to come, I am truly excited.

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