Collaborative Research: A Scalable Processing Method to Produce Thermoplastic Nanofibers from Melt
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Polymeric nanofibers can have major societal impacts in many applications including water filtration, drug delivery, energy storage, and light-weight composites for automotive and aerospace sectors. Despite significant potential applications, scalable methods to produce nanofibers are in their infancy. Current methods such as the well-known electrospinning process often rely on polymer processing from solutions in which a large quantity of solvent is released to the environment. The solvent significantly increases the cost of raw materials and the environmental footprint of the production units, and demands extreme measures for safe ventilation to protect the workforce. This award supports fundamental research to generate the knowledge required to produce polymeric nanofibers in a solvent-free and industrially scalable method. The method is applicable to a wide range of polymers. The results from this research will impact advanced manufacturing and, hence, the U.S. economy, by establishing solvent-free and thus "green" nanofiber production methods. The fulfillment of the research goal will be through a multidisciplinary effort, guided by expertise in material science, chemical engineering, fiber processing and energy-matter coupling. This effort will also broaden the participation of underrepresented student groups in STEM fields.The goal is to develop the science and technology of manufacturing continuous polymeric nanofibers in an environmentally sustainable and scalable fashion. To this end, a novel form of melt electrospinning, where polymer melts are energized via electromagnetic radiation and pulled by electrostatic fields is planned. Microfibers with carbon nanotube inclusions will be utilized as nanofiber precursors. The intellectual significance of this work partly lies in attempts to develop new understanding for coupling energy to matter required to develop nanofibers. The proposition to utilize microfibers is also intellectually significant and is a key to scalability. The nanotubes in microfibers will serve as energy absorbers from radiation to raise the temperature of the jet, regulate its viscosity and assist with reducing the jet diameter via electrostatic forces. The research team will experimentally study the energy absorption by composite fibers from microwave radiation. The team will then develop physics-based models to explore the formation of nanofibers from microfibers. Based on model output, the team will develop the setup to process nanofibers. The setup will allow for real time monitoring of the nanofiber formation to obtain more insight into energy-matter couplings.