The Energy of Innovation at The University of Akron

Barely visible nanofibers make big impact

Small wonder. Big help.

THEY ARE TINY FIBERS invisible to the naked eye. But scientists see in nanofibers the tremendous potential to create what the public sees as magical powers.

Just imagine a tourist in some tropical locale bitten by a very tiny sand fly. The parasite injected by the fly could multiply over time, resulting in a serious skin lesion or even possible damage to internal organs. Current treatment can involve weeks of hospitalization and painful injections of medicine into the wound. But those tiny parasites will be no match for a tiny nanofiber bandage with healing properties.

Nanofibers can transform a normal-looking dry bandage into material that can speed healing of a life-threatening wound or skin ulcer. Nanotechnology—combining nanofibers in a paper-thin layer with chemical agents that react when wet—has led to the development of a bandage that can be used in clinics and on battlefields. From the laboratory at The University of Akron to clinical testing under Food and Drug Administration review, innovations like this are bringing international attention to UA.

Dr. Darrell Reneker, a distinguished professor of polymer science at UA, discovered the “magic” of nanotechnology when working with electron microscopes at the DuPont Company in the 1960s. This was before “nano” was a common pre-fix in the scientific vocabulary. “Nano simply means ‘ten to the minus nine meters.’ If you put three atoms in a row, you might reach the size of a single nanofiber. Today, in our lab, we can produce a nanofibers from a process called electrospinning.” It starts with a polymer solution that is electrified with an electrical charge, and the end result is a fiber that is 300 nanometers in size. Compare that to fiber in clothing—fiber that is 10,000 nanometers in size.

When you layer the nanofibers in an organized way, you can create more effective filters used in air and water filtration, or you can create a bandage that can be embedded with chemical agents for medicinal uses. The bandage in clinical testing now produces nitric oxide, which can heal skin ulcers and other stubborn wounds.

Reneker’s research is now focused on novel processes for making carbon nanofibers for use in energy conversion devices and filters. In the automotive industry, for example, these fibers can be used in everything from bumpers to batteries, creating lighter weight, more fuel ­efficient vehicles.

“Everywhere I turn, I see possibilities for improving existing products or creating new ones utilizing nanofiber technology,” says Reneker. “This is a low-cost process that produces novel fibers with many potential applications.” 

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Interview with Dr. Darrell Reneker

How nanofibers are made: Just two ingredients

Nanofibers at work in a typical home

How nanofibers in bandages accelerate the healing of wounds

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