15 times stronger than steel: Scientists develops strongest, lightest glass nanofibres in the world

Gilberto mounting a fibre on the nanowire fabrication rig.

The University of Southampton's Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) is pioneering research into developing the strongest silica nanofibres in the world.

Globally the quest has been on to find ultrahigh strength composites, leading ORC scientists to investigate light, ultrahigh strength nanowires that are not compromised by defects. Historically, carbon nanotubes were the strongest material available, but high strengths could only be measured in very short samples just a few microns long, providing little practical value.

Now research by ORC Principal Research Fellow Dr Gilberto Brambilla and ORC Director Professor Sir David Payne has resulted in the creation of the strongest, lightest weight silica - 'nanowires' that are 15 times stronger than steel and can be manufactured in lengths potentially of 1000's of kilometres.

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 it is important to have high strength, achieved by production of fibre with extremely low defect rates, and low weight," says Dr 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. We are the only people who currently have optimised the strength of these fibres.

"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. We want to investigate their potential use in composites and we envisage that this material could be used extensively in the manufacture of products such as aircraft, speedboats and helicopters," he adds.

Professor Payne explains: "Weight for weight, silica nanowires are 15 times stronger than high strength steel and 10 times stronger than conventional GRP (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 Dr Brambilla and Professor Payne using Gilberto's £500,000 Fellowship funding from the Royal Society.

Dr Brambilla shared his findings with fellow researchers at a special seminar he organised recently at the Kavli Royal Society International Centre, at Chicheley Hall, in Buckinghamshire.

"It was particularly challenging dealing with fibres that were so small. They are nearly 1,000 times smaller than a human hair and I was handling them with my bare hands," says Dr Brambilla.

"It took me some time to get used to it, but using the state-of-the-art facilities at the ORC I was able to discover that silica nanofibres become stronger the smaller they get. In fact when they become very, very small they behave in a completely different way. They stop being fragile and don't break like glass but instead become ductile and break like plastic. This means they can be strained a lot.

"Up until now most of our research has been into the science of but in the future we are particularly interested in investigating the technology and applications of these fibres," adds Dr Brambilla.

Explore further

Scientists quantify nanofiber health risk to workers

More information: www.orc.soton.ac.uk/
Citation: 15 times stronger than steel: Scientists develops strongest, lightest glass nanofibres in the world (2013, January 10) retrieved 23 July 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2013-01-stronger-steel-scientists-strongest-lightest.html
This document is subject to copyright. Apart from any fair dealing for the purpose of private study or research, no part may be reproduced without the written permission. The content is provided for information purposes only.

Feedback to editors

User comments

Jan 10, 2013
Wow!Thats fantastic...what about constructing a spaceship from the material..

Jan 10, 2013
@hjbasutu: Good point. Reducing the weight of rockets this significantly would allow for amazing payload increases.

Jan 10, 2013
what about constructing a spaceship from the material..

The material to construct spaceships must have more properties than just tensile strength (e.g. resistance to extreme heat/cold/radiation/pressure changes without weakening/cracking).
Only extensive tests will tell if it is suitable or whether the stuff will grow brittle under such conditions.

But from then on it's all good.

Jan 10, 2013
how does it compare to carbon nanotubes? any advantage combining the two for a stronger synergestic product?

Jan 10, 2013
Carbon fibres are about 10 times the strength of steel. Glass fibers are a bit less though they aren't quite as brittle as carbon fibres (so you see there are always tradeoffs).

Fibers in general also suck bad at withstanding compression forces (so do carbon nanotubes)

If you want to compare carbon fibres and carbon nanotubes for tensile strength (only), here's an interesting article

Recent research using carbon nanotubes in place of conventional carbon fibers is revealing large gains in such critical material properties as tensile strength and electrical and thermal conductivity.

A striking example is a paper product that is ultrathin, electrically conducting and 10 times lighter than steel while still being 250 times stronger.

Jan 10, 2013
Great! But, how do they make the fibers? The cheaper the better.. Having another super esoterical material that is too expensive to be put to use has limited value.

If you have to stretch normal micron-sized fibers until they are nm thick, it may not be so cheap.

Jan 10, 2013
A space elevator is waaay off, but a "hypersonic skyhook" is not! This improvement in strength could make space tethers practical. The simplest example would be a "sling" rotating, and circling the Earth in an elliptic orbit. At the point one end of tether is rotating backward, it will grab a spacecraft travelling at suborbital velocity. At the upper end of the ellipse it could release the spacecraft as the end of the tether is travelling forward, thus inserting the spacecraft into orbit or even ejecting it at escape velocity.
Space tether technology would make a single-stage-to-orbit launcher practical with current technology and without exotic materials.

Jan 10, 2013
I need some to cut my cheesecakes.

Jan 10, 2013
what about a space elevator?

Jan 10, 2013
"{used extensively in the manufacture of products such as aircraft, speedboats and helicopters ".......how about cars, bikes, architecture ?

Jan 11, 2013
Carbon fibres are about 10 times the strength of steel.
That is a good point, and most journalists should stop using "steel" as a reference to compare new fiber materials. The current manufacturing standard for all the applications they mention is carbon fiber, not steel, so they should compare new fiber materials against carbon fiber. Since several years ago steel is not used anymore as a principal material for advanced cars, planes, rockets, spaceships, etc. it is carbon fiber. This obsolete comparisons still happen just because journalists prefer to copy each other again and again, rather than thinking a bit by themselves.

Jan 14, 2013
Even this material would make a good 'space elevator' for the Moon or Mars. A little more research and it is good for Earth use. The article said its manufacturability was easily and efficiently scalable to make these fibres thousands of kilometers long. That is a DIRECT reference to space elevator usage. So the first tethers are a little ....big....so what. Would not you rather see a thick hawser of a cable supporting the climber that YOUR alabaster ass was riding on?

Jan 14, 2013
I love anti-alias's reference, as it points to another way to make the space tether, and an easily manufacturable one at that. Such a tether would need to be tested in orbit first for various mechanical parameters before letting the contracts to build a ground terminal for the tether. Suggest putting the ground terminal on a very high mountain top, say in the Andes or Himalayas to start it above much of the atmosphere. Constructing and pressurizing such a building would be the next challenge.

Jan 14, 2013
Space elevators and tethered solar arrays; I can hardly wait to see the applications.

Jan 15, 2013
That is a DIRECT reference to space elevator usage. So the first tethers are a little ....big....so what.

When you look at the details of space elevator design, there are three or four zones, and a well engineered elevator may have different materials for each. The first is the ground to the top of the atmosphere, say 0-150 km. Wind issues and lightning are (potential) problems there. You then run into a zone where micrometeors and space debris are problems, from 150 to say 2000 km. There is also a problem with reactive oxygen atoms from 125 to 500 km. The remaining 90,000 km or so of the elevator cable needs only to deal with the heating and cooling issues in outer space.

This material may be wonderful (with or without nanotubes for the lower zones. (Already oxidized and electrically insulating.) Some added weight is not an issue at the low (and short) end of the cable.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more