MIT’s new ultrafine, ultrastrong fibers could make future body armor tougher

mit nano fibers ultra strong nanofibers 01
Courtesy of the researchers, MIT
Right now, materials like Kevlar are the gold standard when it comes to tough textiles used in applications such as body armor. But materials scientists are busy searching for its possible successor. Previously we’ve covered some innovative ultra-strong materials such a foil-thin graphene shield which can repel diamonds and artificial spider silk able to absorb the majority of an impact.

Now researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have developed their own next-generation tough material: polyethylene nano-fibers, which possess astonishing levels of strength and toughness, despite being just billionths of a meter thick.

“Stiff, strong, and tough ultrafine polethylene fibers that rival the best high performance polymer fibers, but with diameters less than one micrometer, [have been fabricated by us] for the first time by a new process called ‘gel-electrospinning,’” MIT professor of chemical engineering Gregory Rutledge told Digital Trends. “Currently available high performance polyethylene fibers like Spectra and Dyneema are already among the stiffest and strongest fibers, on a per weight basis. However, these new fibers are one to two orders of magnitude smaller in diameter and, pound for pound, can absorb even more energy without breaking.”

The nano-fibers were created by modifying an already existing technique called gel spinning. This involves extruding a polymer gel through a die and then mechanically drawing it in a second, heated stage. In the case of the new “gel-electrospinning” process, this extrusion and drawing is carried out in a single stage using electrical forces, rather than a mechanical approach.

mit nano fibers ultra strong nanofibers 02
Courtesy of the researchers, MIT
Courtesy of the researchers, MIT

At present, it’s still too early to demonstrate real world applications, although Rutledge said that these may include lightweight, flexible, wear-resistant textiles and clothing, as well as soft body armor for military or civilian uses, or possible components for lightweight composites. In all of these applications, the benefit is from the inherent low density of the new fibers and their exceptional toughness, alongside their high stiffness and strength. “The performance of composites are enhanced by the high surface area of the fibers, which can improve bonding to the matrix, and the small distances between the fibers, which further promotes toughness,” Rutledge continued.

The first-of-their-kind fibers have been produced only in Rutledge’s lab at MIT, currently in very small quantities. “We have many challenges to solve before they can be scaled up for commercial production, but we are working on it,” he said. “The gel-electrospinning process is an important step in this direction.”

A paper describing the work was recently published in the Journal of Materials Science.

Emerging Tech

Awesome Tech You Can’t Buy Yet: Racing drones and robotic ping pong trainers

Check out our roundup of the best new crowdfunding projects and product announcements that hit the web this week. You may not be able to buy this stuff yet, but it sure is fun to gawk!
Home Theater

The best TVs for 2019

Looking for a new television? In an oversaturated market, buying power is at an all-time high, but you'll need to cut through the rough to find a diamond. We're here to help with our picks for the best TVs of 2019.
Gaming

The best indie games on Nintendo Switch

The Nintendo Switch's portability makes indies feel at home on the platform. Luckily, there are plenty of great titles to choose from. Here are our picks for the best Nintendo Switch indie games.
Cars

The most reliable cars of 2019

We all dread the thought of our car turning into a money pit, but choosing a dependable vehicle from the start can help us rack up countless care-free miles. Here, we've rounded up some of the most reliable cars available.
Emerging Tech

The black hole at the center of our galaxy is flaring and no one knows why

At the heart of our galaxy lies a supermassive black hole, Sagittarius A*. Normally this giant monster is relatively docile, but recently it's been a hotbed of unexpected activity, rapidly glowing 75 times brighter than normal.
Emerging Tech

SpaceIL’s crashed lander may have sent thousands of tardigrades to the moon

When the SpaceIL craft Beresheet crashed into the moon earlier this year, it left more than just an impact mark. Thousands of micro-animals called tardigrades were along for the ride and may have survived the crash.
Emerging Tech

Wreckage, reefs, and robots: The high-tech quest to find Amelia Earhart’s plane

Over 80 years ago, American aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart disappeared while trying to fly around the world. Now an autonomous water-based robot could help find some answers. Here's how.
Emerging Tech

NASA’s satellite projects will study the sun using solar sailing

Small satellites can be used for all sorts of purposes, and NASA has been searching for ideas to push ahead the capabilities of the hardware. The agency has announced two new projects to demonstrate the potential of small satellites.
Emerging Tech

Hubble captures a beautiful cosmic jellyfish made of glowing gas

A new image from Hubble might look like a deep-space jellyfish, but it's not a sign of extraterrestrial life - in fact, it's a planetary nebula called NGC 2022, located in the constellation of Orion (The Hunter).
Emerging Tech

Parker Solar Probe makes a second orbit of the sun, captures solar wind on video

The Parker Solar Probe, launched last year, has completed its second orbit around the sun. To celebrate, the team responsible for the probe has released a video showing solar winds in action.
Cars

Starman on Tesla Roadster makes first orbit around sun, braces for loneliness

Starman and his Tesla Roadster, sent by SpaceX to outer space last year, have completed their first orbit around the sun. The people on Earth may be able to catch a glimpse of the cherry-red electric vehicle on November 2020.
Emerging Tech

Bernie Sanders calls for a ban on police use of facial recognition

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders is calling for a complete ban on the use of facial recognition by law enforcement as part of the new criminal justice reform plan he introduced this weekend.
Emerging Tech

On the fence about buying solar panels? Tesla now offers them for rent

With solar rental Tesla says “customers get the best from solar power — clean, cheap energy to power homes and vehicles — without upfront costs or decades-long agreements. In fact, customers can get solar power with one click, instead…
Emerging Tech

Autonomous robot deliveries are coming to 100 university campuses in the U.S.

Autonomous robot company Starship Technologies has announced that it will expand its food delivery services to 100 university campuses around the United States over the next 24 months.