Researchers develop ultra-high-strength nanowires

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Southampton University’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) is conducting research into the development of strong silica nanofibres.

According to the university, the development of ultra-high-strength composites has been a goal of researchers around the world, 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 samples measuring a few microns long.

Research by ORC principal research fellow Dr Gilberto Brambilla and ORC director Prof Sir David Payne is said to have resulted in the creation of the strongest, lightest-weight silica nanofibres — ‘nanowires’ that are claimed to be 15 times stronger than steel and can be manufactured in lengths potentially of 1,000’s of kilometres.

According to a statement, their findings are already generating extensive 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.

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

‘Our 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.’

Payne said: ‘Weight for weight, silica nanowires are 15 times stronger than high-strength steel and 10 times stronger than conventional glass reinforced plastic. We can decrease the amount of material used thereby reducing the weight of the object.

‘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 Brambilla and Payne using Gilberto’s £500,000 Fellowship funding from the Royal Society.