'Al dente' fibers could make bulletproof vests stronger and 'greener'

December 9, 2015

Bulletproof vests and other super-strong materials could soon become even tougher and more environmentally friendly at the same time with the help of extra firm, or "al dente," fibers. Researchers report in ACS' journal Macromolecules an innovative way to spin high-performance polyethylene fibers from natural fats, such as oils from olives and peanuts.

These materials, which are powerful enough to stop speeding bullets, can also be used for many other tasks that require strength. They recently played a key role in lifting a sunken ferry from a delicate ecosystem off the coast of Italy. The fibers also can serve as sails to catch wind, ropes for climbing and tying, and thin, sturdy surgical sutures that ensure wound healing. But making fibers for these applications with today's commercial processes has drawbacks. For example, one of the methods requires large amounts of solvents that are flammable and toxic. The research group led by Theo Tervoort and Paul Smith from ETH Zurich wanted to find a more environmentally friendly route to produce these ultra-strong fibers.

The researchers replaced the hazardous solvents with natural, safer alternatives, including extra , peanut oil and stearic acid, which is a substance found in animal and vegetable fats. Their new approach was up to 250 percent more efficient than current methods. And resulting fibers were up to 2 times stronger than a current commercial version. With a nod to the culinary connection, the researchers dubbed their novel product al dente .

Explore further: Could stronger, tougher paper replace metal?

More information: Raphael Schaller et al. High-Performance Polyethylene Fibers "Al Dente": Improved Gel-Spinning of Ultrahigh Molecular Weight Polyethylene Using Vegetable Oils, Macromolecules (2015). DOI: 10.1021/acs.macromol.5b02211

Abstract
We demonstrate that the major drawbacks of so-called gel spinning and solid-state processing of "virgin", i.e. never molten or fully dissolved, ultrahigh molecular weight polyethylene (UHMW PE) to produce ultrahigh modulus and ultrahigh strength fibers and films, which are the unfavorably low polymer concentrations in highly flammable solvents typically employed in the former process and low production rates in the latter, can be largely avoided by employing relatively poor—as opposed to good—solvents, including, among others, fatty acids and natural oils omnipresent in, for example, fruits, nuts, and seeds, which have additional major recovery and environmental advantages.

Related Stories

Could stronger, tougher paper replace metal?

July 24, 2015

Researchers at the University of Maryland recently discovered that paper made of cellulose fibers is tougher and stronger the smaller the fibers get. For a long time, engineers have sought a material that is both strong (resistant ...

Silkworms spinning spider webs

January 3, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- A spiders silk is strong and more elastic and has a large range of possible medical applications. However, spiders have a history of being territorial and prone to cannibalism, so the idea of having a large ...

Discovery of unique muscle fibers of upper airway in humans

December 7, 2015

Researchers at Umeå University in Sweden have discovered unique muscle fibers in the soft palate of the mouth in both infants and adults. The fibers seem to be present in greater number in snorers and sleep apnea patients. ...

The new superstrong

July 11, 2013

In today's market for high performance fibers, used for applications such as bulletproof vests, manufacturers have only four options: Kevlar, Spectra, Dyneema, and Zylon. Made from polymers such as polyethylene, these were ...

Recommended for you

Researchers find a way to combat pharmacoterrorism

August 17, 2017

Using a novel molecular analysis technique, scientists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have identified the chemical underpinnings of Captagon, also known as fenethylline, an illegal amphetamine-type stimulant that ...

0 comments

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

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.