ORC Develops Worlds Strongest and Lightest Nanofibres

The University of Southampton’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) is pioneering research into developing the strongest silica nanofibres in the world.

The quest has been on to find ultra high strength composites, leading ORC scientists to investigate light, ultra high 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.

Research by ORC Principal Research Fellow 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 creating 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.

Gilberto Brambilla explains;

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

Gilberto goes on to say that this 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. They want to investigate their potential use in composites and envisage that this material could be used extensively in the manufacture of products such as aircraft, speedboats and helicopters.

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

Sir David Payne says;

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

The research findings came about following five years of investigations by both Gilberto and David using Gilberto’s £500,000 Fellowship funding from the Royal Society. Gilberto shared his findings with fellow researchers at a special seminar he organised back in November.

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