Polymer fibers are ubiquitous in many spheres of human life. Clothing, apparels, cosmetics, cigarette filters, air conditioning filters, fishing nets, composites, surgical masks, extracorporeal devices, vascular grafts, heart valves, are to name a few examples. Fibers used in these applications are typically in 5 to 50 micrometer diameter range, and made from a variety of polymers of both synthetic and natural origin. According to one estimate, the world fiber consumption is reaching 60 million tons per annum.
How Nanotechnology Can Be Applied to the Production of Smaller Polymer Fibers and How They Might Be Used in Medicine
Imagine a human society without polymer fibers. Now imagine the possibilities if it is feasible to produce polymer fibers with a thousand times smaller diameter. Both, the surface area to weight ratio and surface area to volume ratio of fibers increase significantly. Increased surface area means a feasibility to enhance the functionality of fibers. This would lead to a highly sensitive filter made of polymer nanofibers that is able to selectively capture viruses or bacteria and able to neutralize or kill them. This certainly would improve the quality of human life, as we live in a world faced by terrorism, man-made and natural disasters.
Current Research into Methods for Producing Polymer Nanofibers
Researchers around the world are searching for ways to produce polymer nanofibers. There are more than 70 research groups worldwide investigating polymer nanofibers produced by electrospinning method. Year 2003 alone saw publication of over 200 articles in this emerging field. Figure 1 (see below) illustrates the broad domains of polymer nanofibers that are being actively researched on. About 50% of the papers are focused on the electrospinning process development and characterization of fibers. Others are focused on innovative use of polymer nanofibers for a variety of applications in medicine, biotechnology, and engineering.
Figure 1. Potential applications of polymer nanofibers. Polymer nanofibers are candidates for a number of applications in medicine, biotechnology, and engineering, because of their large surface area to volume ratio and unique nanometer scale architecture.