Ellison Team Develops First Green Fiber Manufacturing Approach
Professor Christopher J. Ellison’s research team has developed the first green approach to making fine fibers for use in applications like regenerative medicine, filtration systems and protective clothing.
The team’s unique method eliminates the use of harmful solvents and large amounts of heat energy used in current leading fiber manufacturing processes. It also generates larger quantities of fibers and reduces production costs.
“Utilizing a chemical interaction between organic compounds, thiol and ene, we’ve provided an environmentally conscious and cost-effective way to mass produce fine fibers with attractive properties,” said Ellison. “The chemistry is the new key component that could easily be adapted into current manufacturing methods to produce larger quantities of fibers without using solvents or heat energy.”
Solvents are often toxic to living systems and can accumulate in the environment while intense heat uses large amounts of energy. Both elements increase production costs as solvents require protective handling gear and special recycling systems, and use of electrical or gas heaters increase energy costs. The use of solvents also reduces overall fiber output by 90 percent because most of the solution being processed evaporates in route to producing solid fibers.
Looking for a better way, the researchers examined spiders’ and silkworms’ benign way of making high strength silk fibers. “Scientists have always been amazed by how spiders and silkworms make fibers,” said Ellison. “Spiders chemically link small building blocks of liquid proteins into long chain molecules while simultaneously pushing them out as solid threadlike structures. It’s impressive.”
Inspired by nature’s concept, Ellison’s team uses light to trigger a thiol-ene chemical interaction that rapidly transforms small reactive molecules in liquid form into solid threadlike structures as they are forced out of a capillary at high speeds.
“This method produces fibers with high chemical and thermal resistance,” said Kadhir Shanmuganathan, a postdoctoral fellow and primary researcher on the project. “Furthermore, the fiber surfaces have free functional groups that allow further chemical modifications, such as drug molecules, peptides or fluorescent markers for potential biomedical applications. This is very exciting.”
Ellison’s team, which includes Shanmuganathan and undergraduate researchers Robert Sankhagowit and Prashanth Iyer, recently published these results in the journal Chemistry of Materials and filed a provisional patent application on their technique through the university’s Office of Technology Commercialization. The next phase of their research will look at producing bio renewable fibers using natural starting materials, such as soy bean oil.