New ceramic nanofiber ‘sponges’ could be used for flexible insulation, water purification

“The basic science question we tried to answer is how can we make a material that’s highly deformable but resistant to high temperature,” said Huajian Gao, a professor in Brown University’s School of Engineering and a corresponding author of the research. “This paper demonstrates that we can do that by tangling ceramic nanofibers into a sponge, and the method we use for doing it is inexpensive and scalable to make these in large quantities.”

The work, a collaboration between Gao’s lab at Brown and the labs of Hui Wu and Xiaoyan Li at Tsinghua University in China, is described in the journal Science Advances.

As anyone who has ever dropped a flower vase knows well, ceramics are brittle materials. Cracks in ceramics tend to propagate quickly, leading to catastrophic failure with even the slightest deformation. While that’s true for all traditional ceramics, things are different at the nanoscale.

“At the nanoscale, cracks and flaws become so small that it takes much more energy to activate them and cause them to propagate,” Gao said. “Nanoscale fibers also promote deformation mechanisms such as what is known as creep, where atoms can diffuse along grain boundaries, enabling the material to deform without breaking.”

Because of those nanoscale dynamics, materials made from ceramic nanofibers have the potential to be deformable and flexible, while maintaining the heat resistance that make ceramics useful in high-temperature applications. The problem is that such materials aren’t easy to make. One often-used method of making nanofibers, known as electrospinning, doesn’t work well with ceramics. Another potential option, 3-D laser printing, is expensive and time-consuming.

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