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Nanotechnology in Textiles

By Will Soutter

Topics Covered

Introduction
Nanomaterials Used in Textiles
Nanofibre Technologies
   Applications of Nanofibres
   Nanofibre Fabrication Techniques
Nano-Enhanced Finishing Treatments
Nano-Textile Products
References

Introduction

Textile manufacturers have begun to use nanomaterials in their products. The unique properties of nanoparticles and nanofibres mean that they can be used to design fabrics with excellent mechanical strength, chemical resitance, water repellance, antibacterial properties, and a wealth of other properties which are unattainable by any other means.

There is still a lot of research still to be done in this area, however. The different techniques needed to produce nano-enhanced textiles do not always fit well with existing manufacturing processes, leading to increased development costs. This can also affect issues like quality control, and homogeneity of nanoparticle dispersion through the fabric.

There are also issues around the implications of nanoparticle exposure, for human health and for the environment. A great deal of recent reseach has focused on this issue, but we are still some way away from a full understanding of the toxicological effects of the various kinds of nanoparticles which are already appearing in consumer products.

Nanomaterials Used in Textiles

The most common type of nano-enhanced fibre to be explored so far is a simple composite of a conventional, natural or synthetic fibre with nanoparticles which improve the performance or add novel properties to the fabric. Some examples are given in the table below.

Table 1. Properties of nanomaterials used in textiles

Nanomaterial Properties
Carbon black nanoparticles or nanofibres Abrasion resistance
Higher tensile strength
Good chemical resistance
Electrical conducting
Carbon nanotubes Exceptionally strong (100x tensile strength of steel)
Lightweight
Electrically conducting
Thermally conducting
Metal oxide nanoparticles Photocatalytic
Electrically conductive
UV Protection
Antimicrobial
Metal nanoparticles Antimicrobial
Solar cells
Aesthetic properties
Clay nanoparticles Electrical resistance
Chemical resistance
Fire retardant
UV shielding

Nanofibre Technologies

In addition to combining nanoparticles with conventional textiles to enhance their properties, textiles can now be manufactured which are made entirely out of nanoscale fibres. Using these nanofibres, researchers have been able to go much further in developing fabrics with unique and valuable properties.

Applications of Nanofibres

  • Air and water filtration
  • Controlled drug delivery
  • Tissue reconstruction
  • Barrier materials
  • Anti-microbial fabric

Nanofibre Fabrication Techniques

Electrospinning

This is a well established technique for manufacturing polymer fibres. The apparatus consists of a syringe with a capillary needle. A high voiltage across the needle creates a charged jet of material, which spins out into fibres to be collected on a charged plate.

Although the technique is well understood, production is very slow, and the quality of the fibres is not very high. Novel applications for nanofibres have renewed interest in this technique, as they can make it commercially viable.

Splitspinning

Splitspinning involves splitting a filament into multiple smaller filaments. This technique is more suited to large scale manufacturing, but it is difficult to produce filaments smaller than a few micrometers in diameter. Research is ongoing to push the capabilities of splitspinning into the nanoscale range.

Self-Assembly

This is a biomimetic, "bottom-up" nanofabrication technique, which relies on the tendency of materials to assemble into nanoscale structures. This kind of process is difficult to control, and is limited to a specific set of materials, but could produce some fascinating materials with unique properties, as well as enhancing our understanding of nanoscale interactions.

Figure 1. Electrospun nylon nanofibres, coated with antibacterial silver nanoparticles, make an effective sterilizing air filter. Image credit: Cornell Centre for Materials Research.

Nano-Enhanced Finishing Treatments

Traditionally, many of the application-specific properties given to textiles are obtained at the finishing stage, where chemical or physical treatment of the fibres can change their appearance and improve their resistance to water, chemicals and general wear.

Nanotechnology offers many benefits for these types of process. Wet finishing, such as dying, produce large amounts of contaminated waste water. Dry finishing processes like lamination and coating often consume large amounts of energy, and are limited by the amount of material that can be applied to a fabric without adversely affecting its properties.

Nanoformulations for dyes could greatly reduce the amount of colouring agent needed, reducing the amount of waste produced. Nanocoatings are capable of modifying fabric properties much more drastically whilst remaining flexible and transparent, opening up many applications for treated textiles which have been difficult to achieve previously.

Nano-Textile Products

  • Sports fabrics with improved mechanical properties, and odour-reducing antibacterial properties
  • Medical textiles such as antimicrobial wound dressings, clothing and bedding
  • PPE (personal protective equipment) with improved chemical or heat resistance
  • Military textiles, such as flexible body armour, radio shielding and camouflage
  • Wearable electronics, which could range from conducting fabrics to connect devices together to full portable computers made from nanofibres and flexible circuit boards.

References

Date Added: Jul 20, 2012 | Updated: Jul 20, 2012
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