The high cost to manufacture nanofibers has relegated them to just a few niche industries. MIT researchers developed a new technique for producing nanofibers that increases the rate of production fourfold while reducing energy consumption by more than 90 percent, holding out the prospect of cheap, efficient nanofiber production.

A scanning electron micrograph of the new microfiber emitters, showing the arrays of rectangular columns etched into their sides. (MIT)

Nanofibers are useful for any application that benefits from a high ratio of surface area to volume — solar cells, for instance. They can also yield materials that are permeable only at very small scales, like water filters, or that are remarkably tough for their weight, like body armor.

The standard technique for manufacturing nanofibers is called electrospinning, which is adapted on a smaller scale using techniques common in the manufacture of MEMS to produce dense arrays of tiny emitters. The emitters’ small size reduces the voltage necessary to drive them and allows more of them to be packed together, increasing production rate.