Chemical engineers Jessica Schiffman and Sarah Perry at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed nanofiber fabrics that are green and non-toxic that can be used in medical, environmental, personal care and food packaging applications. The research is supported by a three-year, $338,180 grant from the National Science Foundation.
Schiffman and Perry say the key to their research is thinking differently about polymers. While traditional methods of making polymer-based fibers require the use of toxic organic solvents, this new approach uses polymers that assemble to form fibers from a solution of water and salt. The resultant fibers are highly stable even if exposed to high temperatures or they are submerged in organic solvents. The grant supports fundamental research into the development and application of these new, green nanofiber fabric materials.
The existing method for making nanofibers is based on a process known as “electrospinning,” where an electrical force is used to “draw” or pull charged threads of polymer solutions into solid nanoscale fibers that cluster to form a soft, flexible fabric. This well-known method has been demonstrated to form fibers from more than 100 different polymers.
However, the use of such nanofiber fabrics is sharply limited because of the potential for residual toxic solvents or chemicals in the final product. By using this new non-toxic, environmentally friendly approach, Perry and Schiffman say they will vastly expand the potential uses for the fabrics.
“This is a fundamental game-changer,” Schiffman says. Perry adds that the new method for creating the nanofibers “opens whole new fields of research and applications.”
New uses for the tissue paper-like materials could include advanced wound dressing technologies where the fibers could simultaneously deliver medicine while removing infected, oozy exudate from wounds.
They could also be used for water treatment and in the food-processing industry to detect when food has spoiled or contains harmful bacteria or other health threats, Schiffman and Perry say. Other uses might include cleaning chemical spills, delivering pesticides to crops, facial wipes and food packaging.