A world leading Henderson company is making fibres so thin they’re invisible and yet they’re helping to revolutionise many aspects of life, including medicine, skin care, air filtration, carbon fibre, resin based products like fibreglass, sound proofing and some wearable textiles.
Revolution Fibres is one of the few companies in the world making nano-fibres, a concept that, says Technical Director and company founder, Iain Hosie, originated in the 1930s with the Russians taking a particular interest.
Interest died out quickly because nobody could think of a use for them. Recently, with the relentless drive of miniaturisation in a wide range of activities, they have come into their own. In fact, says Iain, research into new uses is running far ahead of the world’s ability to produce fibres to meet proposed new applications. This means that one part of the challenge for his company is in merely keeping up with where the world of nano-fibres is heading next, and trying to design and tailor the products that will meet ever-expanding needs.
In simplified terms manufacture involves subjecting a droplet of raw material to very high voltage which spins off an invisible fibre, a chain of molecules or polymer, at 80 metres per second. These fibres are layered onto a backing paper, forming a film in the appropriate material to the required density. This film can be peeled off when it is needed for use.
Nano-fibres are so thin they’re invisible to the naked eye and can only be seen under an electron
microscope. They only become visible when many layers are placed on top of each other. Iain demonstrates with a sheet of nylon that is almost weightless, and so thin and flexible it moulds to his hand like a second skin. ”That’s made up of hundreds of layers,” he says.n
In fact, Iain and his fellow young scientists and engineers at the company are on the leading edge that is cutting deeper and deeper into the world of atomic and sub-atomic particles: a world that even the great genius of Albert Einstein was unable to fully understand.
Even the thinness of invisible fibres probes into the nature of what is real. Although these fibres do not exist to the naked eye, an electron microscope can look inside a fibre and see that it is made of even smaller stuff. Does this go on forever?
The modern, increasingly miniaturised world has developed a huge appetite for textiles made from these fibres and paradoxically to meet the demand, the company has built one of the largest nanofibre making machines in the world.
The company makes nano-fibres using a range of raw materials in order to produce a finished textile to suit a particular application. For example, it hit the headlines recently by supplying soundproofing nano-fibre textiles to revolutionise the office cubicle. The resulting “return focus pods” allow workers to make noise without disturbing their colleagues.
The same outcome using old technology would have required much thicker walls and even then might not be as effective. Because of their lack of bulk, the same nano-fabrics can be applied in very thin patches to, say, cell phones, to prevent other people hearing the conversation. Head-height wings on some office chairs now have nano-fibres to direct the conversation directly at the listener.
Nor are nano-fibre textiles a blunt instrument, says Iain. Revolution Fibres can identify which sound wavelengths cause the most irritation and create a fibre that acts to suppress those wavelengths in particular.
In medicine, nano-fibre textiles can be used for wrapping individually damaged tendons or broken bones to help them heal. Nano-fibre gauze impregnated with drugs, is even being wrapped around cancers to destroy them, raising the potential of cures without radio therapy and other treatments.
Skin care products, both medicinal and cosmetic, can be impregnated with collagen nano-fibres and applied to the skin.
In air filtration, a standout example is the filters supplied to air circulating systems made by HRV, another company that started in West Auckland. With the HRV filters, manuka oil is added to the raw material and forms part of the molecule chain the fabric is made from. The manuka oil acts as an anti-bacterial agent to sterilise the filtered air and, because it is part of the very structure and not a spray on additive, it lasts the life of the filter.
Nano-fabrics are also being used to reinforce composite materials such as carbon-fibre and fibreglass, both of which are strong under tension but brittle when struck. Adding custom made nano-fibres to the mix significantly reduces this brittleness, which in turn increases their durability and also the uses to which they can be put.
Being 1,000 times smaller than the micro-fibres currently used in clothing textiles, uses are also developing in the apparel industry.
Iain Hosie is a biochemist who got into the business after working for the government in the field of air quality and hazardous substances and saw the possibilities of making better air filters. He not only bears a certain physical resemblance to Britain’s rock star physics professor, Brian Cox, known here for this TV series “Wonders of the Universe”, but shares his ability to convey very complex information in everyday language.
For the moment, he says, Revolution Fibres are limited by the cost of R&D, the costs of manufacture and the costs of final products, which means that the company is working in niche markets. As part of this approach it has developed strategic partnerships whereby other companies research and define the products that are needed and Revolution Fibres make them.
The business is in the classic Rolls Royce situation of making world leading products that are, as yet, unaffordable in everyday application. For example, the sound-proofing properties may not yet be affordable in the average house or budget hotel, but add value in higher priced houses or luxury hotels. In time, however, use will create the economies of scale that bring nano-fibres within the reach of everyone.
Iain’s rather hoping a property developer in Auckland might consider pioneering the use of sound-proofing nano-fabrics because better sound-proofing will make many homes, and especially terraces and apartment blocks, much more “liveable” and thus help achieve Auckland Council’s dream of being the world’s most “liveable” city.