The University of Southampton (UK) is pioneering research into developing the strongest silica nanofibers in the world. Globally, the quest has been on to find ultra-high-strength composites, leading scientists to investigate light, ultra-high-strength nanowires that are not compromised by defects. Historically, carbon nanotubes were the strongest material available, but high strengths could only be measured in very short samples just a few microns long, providing little practical value.

Research by Principal Research Fellow Dr. Gilberto Brambilla and Professor Sir David Payne has resulted in the creation of the strongest, lightest weight silica nanofibers – ‘nanowires’ -- that are 15 times stronger than steel and can be manufactured in lengths potentially of thousands of kilometers.

The discovery could change the future of composites and high-strength materials across the world, and have a huge impact on the marine, aviation, and security industries. The material could be used extensively in the manufacture of products such as aircraft, speedboats, and helicopters.

Professor Payne explains: “Weight for weight, silica nanowires are 15 times stronger than high strength steel and 10 times stronger than conventional GRP (Glass Reinforced Plastic). We can decrease the amount of material used thereby reducing the weight of the object.”

Said Dr. Brambilla, “It was particularly challenging dealing with fibers that were so small. They are nearly 1,000 times smaller than a human hair and I was handling them with my bare hands.”

Silica nanofibers become stronger the smaller they get. In fact, when they become very, very small, they behave in a completely different way. They stop being fragile and don’t break like glass, but instead become ductile and break like plastic, meaning they can withstand a large amount of strain.