Year/Course: 2017-2018, Lent 2018

Contact: Dr. Stoyan Smoukov, Active & Intelligent Materials Lab, School of Engineering and Materials Science, Queen Mary University of London and University of Cambridge
Mentor: Adrian Swinburne

Nanofibers have demonstrated potential to be used in high efficiency air and water filtration, as tissue engineering scaffolds, as protein affinity purification columns, battery separation membranes, and smart bandages, among other applications. There is a problem in the commercialization of many nanofibers: several high volume production methods have been developed, but they are confined to a few polymers that can be melt-processed. Solution-processed polymers and more complex materials (composites, inorganics) are only made in nanofibers by electrospinning, which despite recent advances is still orders of magnitude less productive.

Enter the Fiber Faucet – a technology which has been successfully applied to the area of polymer nanofibers through a spin-out, Xanofi, Inc. The invention allows polymer solutions with or without additives to be made into nanofibers at production rates orders of magnitude higher than commercial electrospinning. This allows low cost production that would create many products for existing markets, and create whole new markets where benefits are only demonstrated in academic environments, but cost has been a barrier to commercial implementation. The process works by combining two fluid streams – a polymer solution and antisolvent, causing precipitation under shear. [Smoukov et al. Adv. Mater. 27 (2015) 2642 ] DOI: 10.1002/adma.201404616 It produces fibers in a continuous manner coming out of a pipe, hence the name, the Fiber Faucet.

The global market for nanofibers is projected to reach $2.2 billion by 2020 [BCC report 2012]. The reason for the interest in nanofibers is their extremely high surface-to-volume ratio, which provides capabilities for very efficient filtration, adsorption, insulation, barriers, or even drug release and tissue engineering. The Fiber Faucet (aka shear-spinning) technology is a throughput leader (and potential cost disrupter) in reviews on fiber-spinning technologies [Luo et al. Chem. Soc. Rev. 41(2012) 4708]. Most fiber spinning reviews focus on polymer fiber spinning.

The role of the i-Team will be to investigate the use of the Fiber Faucet for inorganic and composite nanofibers, including magnetic nanofibers. Example applications include using composite fibres for tissue engineering, for solar cells and flexible electronics, and in batteries. The team will need to identify potential markets for the nanofibers and assess their viability by gathering feedback from relevant industry experts.