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Posted: June 10, 2008

Spider web inspires new nanofiber venture

(Nanowerk News) A Canterbury University (New Zealand) student whose research into producing ultra-fine, nanofibers was honoured in the 2006 MacDiarmid Young Scientists of the Year Awards has gone to help develop an electrospinning machine that is being sold to research laboratories around the world.
Jon Stanger won the Future Science category of the MacDiarmid Awards in 2006 for his research into electrospinning processes that replicate the intricate way a spider spins its web to produce tough, lightweight composite materials. The silk produced by a spider’s spinneret has greater tensile strength than steel of the same diameter.
Jon, who has just completed his Masters degree at the University of Canterbury, has been collaborating with Crop & Food Research on the nano fibre engineering project, with the Foundation? providing funding to support his work.
The partners have designed and developed a commercial electrospinning machine and a company has been formed in Blenheim to produce the machines. So far, five have been sold to research teams in New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Germany, and the company, Electrospinz Ltd, is getting a steady stream of enquiries.
Electrospinning uses a high voltage electrical potential to form a mat of fine fibres from polymer substances like proteins and cellulose and is an emerging technology around the world for producing new materials. Possible uses include medical applications such as making replacement skin or bone, new packaging materials and bioremediation or safe and natural ways of cleaning up the environment.
Nick Tucker, Research Leader in biomaterials for Crop & Food Research says electrospinning does not use high temperatures or damaging chemicals and the resulting fibres have exceptional properties.
“The traditional way of working with natural materials is to dismantle the original structure, for example a tree, and reconstruct it into something that has poorer properties, for example a kitchen unit. This method allows us to create a very fine fibre that has mechanical properties, such as strength, that mirror those of the original material.”
Crop & Food Research is testing the potential of electrospun proteins and polysaccharides (carbohydrates such as cellulose or starch) as industrial raw materials. Jon Stanger’s work has been helping the team better understand the electrospinning process and feeding his knowledge into machine design and development.
Electrospinz has been set up by Neil Buunk, who is Technical Director of Blenheim’s Potatopak which makes food packing trays from potato processing waste. Mr Buunk was visiting Crop & Food Research on other business when he noticed Jon’s prototype electrospinning machine and saw the possibilities in making small scale lab spinning machines.
Within six weeks, a production machine had been developed. It was bought by Warwick University who also paid for Jon to go to the United Kingdom and work with staff researching electrospinning of nanofibres.
While electrospinning has been around for many years, Dr Tucker says it was viewed as a technical curiosity until the 1980s when its potential for producing nanofibers was recognised. The machine can spin fibre down to 100 nanometres in diameter, which is about ten thousandths of the thickness of a human hair and smaller than the wavelength of visible light.
“It’s very challenging to work with. As the fibre is created it’s accelerating like a whip being cracked and it gets quickly stretched. You can’t see the individual fibres although over time you can see an opaque mat forming,” says Dr Tucker.
The machine designed by Electrospinz is finding customers, says Neil Buunk, because it’s reliable, safe and affordable.
Mr Buunk’s expertise in computer control and his mechanical and engineering background have created a machine which is easy and safe to operate and effectively spins the tiny threads into a web of fibre.
“There is a lot of research going on into electrospun materials and the blend of knowledge we have in terms of the science and machine construction means we can produce what individual laboratories want. The machine is easy to modify and we custom make them.”
One of the materials being trialled by the collaborators is marine collagen which is normally part of the waste stream from hoki processing in New Zealand.
New Zealand already exports BSE-free collagens from cows and there could be demand for high value, electrospun material made from marine collagen.
Marie Bradley, Southern Regional Manager with the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology, says Jon Stanger's project is an exciting example of taking challenging science out of the lab and making it a commercial reality while also supporting an emerging industry in nanofibers.
“With our support, Jon got to experience both leading edge science and the process of setting up a new company and obviously did a good job of both.”
Jon Stanger will be taking his research further through PhD study.
“A lot of work has now been done on electrospinning,” he says. “But some of the more fundamental stuff has never been explored. I’m trying to take it to a level where we can design and produce industrial scale machines and find ways of increasing volumes of production.
“I’m in at the important stage. Early work has been completed but the serious work is underway that will develop real world applications and take it out of the blue skies area.”
Jon’s supervisors during his Masters degree study were Dr Mark Staiger, of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Associate Professor Roger Reeves of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, at the University of Canterbury.
Source: Foundation for Research, Science and Technology