MIT: Nanocomposities yield strong, stretchy fibers

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Creating artificial substances that are both stretchy and strong has long been an elusive engineering goal. Inspired by spider silk, a naturally occurring strong and stretchy substance, MIT researchers have now devised a way to produce a material that begins to mimic this combination of desirable properties.

Such materials, known as polymeric nanocomposites, could be used to strengthen and toughen packaging materials and develop tear-resistant fabrics or biomedical devices. Professor Gareth McKinley, graduate student Shawna Liff and postdoctoral researcher Nitin Kumar worked at MIT's Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (ISN) to develop a new method for effectively preparing these materials. The research appears in the January issue of Nature Materials.

Engineers are already able to create materials that are either very strong or very stretchy, but it has been difficult to achieve both qualities in the same material. In the last few years scientists have determined that the secret behind the combined strength and flexibility of spider silk lies in the arrangement of the nano-crystalline reinforcement of the silk while it is being produced.

"If you look closely at the structure of spider silk, it is filled with a lot of very small crystals," says McKinley, a professor of mechanical engineering. "It's highly reinforced."

The silk's strength and flexibility come from this nanoscale crystalline reinforcement and from the way these tiny crystals are oriented towards and strongly adhere to the stretchy protein that forms their surrounding polymeric matrix.

Liff, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering, and Kumar, a former MIT postdoctoral associate, teamed up to figure out how to begin to emulate this nano-reinforced structure in a synthetic polymer (A polymer or plastic consists of long chains composed of small repeating molecular units). Numerous earlier unsuccessful attempts, tackling th

Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

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