Nanofibre facemasks provide a breath of fresh air


Deakin University’s Institute of Frontier Materials (IFM) has been working with Xinau Technology to develop a new type of nanofibre facemask that will replace traditional microfibre-based equivalents.

Air quality is on the decline in huge areas of the developed and developing world. The International Energy Agency attribute an estimated 6.5 million deaths per year to indoor and outdoor air pollution – it is reportedly the fourth largest threat to human health, after high blood pressure, dietary risks, and smoking. Pollutants that measure less than 2.5 microns (PM2.5) are a particular concern, their small size means they are able to penetrate deep into the lungs.

Facemasks are now commonly used in heavily affected areas, but conventional microfibre masks either don’t provide the necessary filtration or block air ow too heavily, making it hard to breathe.
As “smog seasons” become a regular occurrence, cities such as Beijing are seeing a huge number of residents turn to expensive, high-end masks to help them breathe easy.

A team at the IFM are now using ANFF VIC’s electrospinning equipment to create nanofibre-based masks that are drastically better at stopping inhalation of PM2.5 particles and provide very little breath resistance. The pilot electrospinning machine is able to prepare 2-metre-wide nanofibre sheets in a continuous manner and has a production capability of up to 1,000m2 per day.

“ANFF VIC’s needleless electrospinning machines at Deakin university made it possible to process large-size nanofibre nonwoven sheets with consistent structure.” – Professor Tong Lin

“When a layer of nanofibre nonwovens is inserted into conventional facemask, the breath resistance did not increase much, however, the capture efficiency for PM2.5 was significantly improved,” Professor Tong Lin, leader of the team at Deakin University, said. This means the team can make the filtering material thinner and more breathable, while still stopping up to 95% of airborne pollutants.

The key component to maintain high PM2.5 filtration efficiency is the nanofibre sheets, which are highly porous and have a large surface area.

“ANFF VIC’s needleless electrospinning machines at Deakin university made it possible to process large-size nanofibre nonwoven sheets with consistent structure,” Tong continued. “It also allows you to adjust the fibrous structure by changing the operating parameters such as voltage, spinning distance and polymer components.”

The team are currently working with Xinau to commercialise the technology.

Exploring gold nanowires and nanorods

By “painting” gold nanowires onto an elastic material, Professor Wenlong Cheng has created a new class of soft and wearable sensors. Credit: Professor Wenlong Cheng.

Professor Wenlong Cheng from Monash University has been exploring unique properties of gold nanomaterials for over 16 years. Two recent projects, conducted at ANFF-Vic’s Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication (MCN), involved gold nanorods and gold nanowires.

Wearable sensors

Stretchable, conductive materials are driving the capabilities of tomorrow’s soft and wearable technologies.

Wearables may hold the key to accurate and comfortable health monitoring and movement detection. There’s also the potential for a range of intuitive human/machine interfaces to be created that could ultimately enable implantable biomedical devices.

Wenlong and a team of researchers from Monash University have been making a range of flexible sensors by coating elastic materials with interwoven networks of conductive ultra-thin gold nanowires (UGNWs). According to Wenlong, the UGNWs are the world’s thinnest gold nanowires at only 2nm wide — a DNA double helix, by comparison, is just over 2nm in width.

The elastic substrates that the UGNWs are grafted onto are flexible and biologically safe, making them ideal candidates for wearable electronics.

Researchers worked at MCN to create wearable pressure sensors, skin-attachable strain sensors, flexible transparent electrodes and stretchable supercapacitors.

To create a sensor, UGNWs are grown via a solvent-based chemical process that yields a host of hair- like ultra-thin fibres. Once in a liquid suspension, the wires are “painted” onto the elastic material, forming

an interwoven mesh of electrically conductive fibres once the paint dries. When the UGNW-coated elastic
is stretched, the device’s electrical resistance changes too, providing

a real-time and reversible electrical representation of the sensor’s state.

Wenlong exploits these changing properties to detect and monitor movement with an incredibly high degree of precision. His devices offer touch sensitivity and can pick up the tiny forces associated with artery wrist pulses.

“They are able to resolve pressing, stretching, bending, and torsion
forces as well as acoustic vibrations,” Wenlong said. The team’s devices are cheap to manufacture and attachable to almost any surface, allowing accurate measuring of skin or muscle deformation anytime, anywhere.

In the health sector, for example, increased sensitivity of these devices could reveal previously undetected heart defects or be used to monitor detailed hand movements in robotic infrastructure such as advanced prosthetics.

Targeting tumours

At present, the vast majority of cancer treatments work by attacking cancer cells but often affect healthy tissue in the process. The approach, whilst effective, produces a large number of side effects including irreparable and extensive tissue damage, hair loss and nausea, among others.

There has therefore been a great deal of effort devoted to improving the selectivity of cancer therapies in order to minimise collateral damage. Increasingly, the idea is to hunt with a sniper rifle, rather than a shotgun.

Highly tumour specific aptamers could provide better cancer treatments.

Wenlong and his colleagues have gone a step further and developed what is effectively a guided missile that exclusively binds to target tumours before heating defective tissue to the point of destruction. Advancing a treatment called photothermal therapy, the method uses gold nanorods (GNRs) – shorter, wider versions of gold nanowires – which rapidly heat up to 45°C when irradiated by near-infrared (NIR) light.

To specifically target the cancerous cells, the GNRs are coated with DNA-specific aptamers that Wenlong selected to identify DNA unique to
the tumour cells. Aptamers are single strands of DNA that bind selectively
to a complementary piece of genetic material. The theory is that once the aptamer binds to the target tumour cell, the GNR is heated with the NIR light and the cell is destroyed.

Wenlong and his team collaborated with a team led by Professor David Jans, NMHRC Senior Principal Research Fellow at Monash University to test the GNR-aptamer “missile” on breast ductal carcinoma cells residing in healthy tissue.

Wenlong’s team was able to observe the selectiveness and efficacy of this process using the MCN’s hyperspectral imaging capabilities. The initial results indicate that once the GNRs had been heated by NIR light, 96 per cent of tumour cells had been successfully targeted and 71 per cent of them were destroyed, with less than one per cent of healthy tissue affected.

Folding plasmene nanosheets

Self-folding plasmene nanosheets could be used for advanced identification applications Credit: Professor Wenlong Cheng

Professor Wenlong Cheng has been investigating how to make an unusual class of materials with exotic properties and unprecedented real-world applications.

Formally introducing plasmene nanosheets to the world, he and his team have created self-folding sheets of nanoparticles that can change the behaviour of light.

The nanosheets consist of a superlattice of nanoparticles, organised in a hexagonal pattern much like the arrangement of carbon atoms in the wonder-material, graphene.

Wenlong’s team creates the materials by sparsely distributing nanoparticles covered with protruding polystyrene hairs, or ligands, across the surface of a water droplet. By evaporating the water the surface area shrinks, bringing the particles closer together. Attractive van der Waals forces between the nanoparticles draw them together while repulsive forces between the ligands manoeuvre the nanoparticles into the desired hexagonal configuration.

The nanoparticle-laden water droplet is suspended over an open cavity, in this case a hole in a copper sheet, which gives the nanosheet a place to form. Once all the water has been removed, a continuous nanosheet forms neatly across this cavity like the membrane on a drum, allowing Wenlong to begin to play with it.

Using ANFF-Vic’s focused ion beam (FIB) instrument at the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication, the team “scores” specific patterns into the sheets, deliberately weakening them at key points. The weakened regions are akin to the paper folding lines introduced in origami, where the layout and severity of the folds define the final three-dimensional structures.

(Centre and Left) TEM image of a single free-standing soft plasmene nanosheet and zoomed-in view showing the ordered rhombic dodecahedral building blocks. (Right) SEM image of a complex 3D plasmene origami fabricated in conjunction with top down focused ion beam lithography.

This scoring process means the resultant shape’s properties can be tuned by manipulating the pattern cut into them and the order in which the folding is performed, enabling tailoring of the final product to meet specific end applications.

Researchers have investigated the properties of this self-folding before, but the designs of the well-defined origami structures of this kind have not been realised until now.

Light interacts and reflects off differing origami shapes in a way that is unique to each contour. By changing the structure, Wenlong can exploit his plasmene sheets to perform some useful tricks.
One useful application for these tiny sculptures is in nanophotonics as plasmonic waveguides for directing and switching light at the nanoscale by circumventing diffraction limits.

The plasmene nanosheets produced can also be used as dual-coded encryption security labels as it’s almost impossible to fraudulently create the shapes without the initial blueprint. This poses enormous potential benefits to the banknote industry, which is always searching for more secure methods of deterring counterfeiters.

The plasmene sheet’s semitransparency, mechanical softness and uniform response to light suggest that it could be an ideal material in the production of secure identifying labels for chemicals, currency and commodities, among others.

Predicting artery plaque rupture

Lipid build up in artery walls can cause plaques to form that can rupture and cause significant health problems.

Sphere (left) attached to the cantilever tip (right).

AFM deflection image of cancerous (left) and benign breast cells (right). 

February 2012

Due to lipid build up in artery walls, plaques form that can rupture and cause significant health problems for patients. Researchers at the Baker institute have worked together with MCN to study and predict the likelihood of plaque formation and rupture due to Atherosclerosis in an attempt to prevent it.

Atherosclerosis occurs when lipid steaks infiltrate and build-up in the artery walls, creating a plaque as a result. These plaques can be divided in two distinct types: those that rupture (vulnerable) and those that are less likely to rupture (stable).

In this project, the Nanowizard II AFM was used to determine the elastic properties of the vessels and plaque as well as the topography of the plaque surface. The first results were directly implemented in computational fluid dynamics software. Studying the surface topography then led to the development of models for the boundary conditions along the artery walls. This work will employ a new model in mice, to be used for predicting the formation and properties of vulnerable plaques.

A difficulty in the present approach is working with wet and soft samples. In particular, working with soft samples implies a specific set up for modified cantilevers, in which a sphere is bound to the AFM cantilever (see image above). Tests will be conducted using breast cancer cells to improve this methodology and optimise the conditions for cantilevers. Cantilever optimisation experiments will utilise the cleanroom facility at MCN.

Acoustic nanofluidics

Fluid reservoirs are connected with an output well via 100, 50, and 20nm wide channels in lithium niobate. Upon filling the reservoirs and starting acoustic radiation in the substrate, the channels rapidly fill the output well at speeds many orders beyond physically predicted rates. This entire structure would fit in this full stop. 

October 2011

Simulated molecular dynamics at the nanoscale show tremendous potential for improved manipulation of particles and molucules in fluids. In his fellowship project, Professor James Friend is examining the phenomena of rapid fluid flow in nanochannels induced by surface acoustic waves. Very high frequency sound waves (10–1000 MHz) applied in microchannels enables pumping, mixing, particle separation and other phenomena useful for medical diagnostics and chemical detection devices.

At the nanoscale, molecular dynamics simulations are showing potential for over five orders of magnitude improvement on any current method known for manipulating fluids and nanoparticles and molecules within.

At MCN, the focused ion beam and electron beam lithography facilities, the UV lithography and deep reactive ion etch instruments are all crucially important in fabricating the acoustic wave devices and the nanostructures on them. These facilities are especially convenient as they are adjacent to laboratories at the MCN where the devices can be immediately tested on confocal and high-speed fluoroscopy equipment. The devices go from concept to fabrication to testing in a matter of a few days.

This work has the potential to benefit Victorians through potential means of efficient drinking water filtration, drug delivery and implantable medical device technology to treat cancer and autoimmune diseases, as well as acoustophoresis for protein and DNA assays to serve as a tool in microbiochemistry for identifying the causes of disease and illness.

Understanding emulsions and foams

Confocal image of two oil drops immobilized in an atomic force microscope. (top right) Schematic of the measurement where a custom micro-fabricated cantilever is used to hold the top drop in position. 

Vertical slices of a confocal microscopy image showing the profile of the two drops when separated far apart and when deformed.

October 2011

This project, led by Professor Ray Dagastine from the University of Melbourne, looks at fabricating nano- and micro-sizes devices to integrate with atomic force microscopy with the aim of developing new tools to study the complexity of interfaces in soft materials. The collisions between drops or bubbles in soft materials such as emulsions and foams control macroscopic behavior in growing sectors of biotechnology and nanotechnology as well as in materials used in everyday items. Some examples include the production of salad dressing, milk and shampoo, industrial processes such as solvent extraction used for pharmaceutical and mineral purification, as well as development of micro-fluidic devices for new applications.

The fabrication of custom designed micro-cantilevers allows the manipulation of oil drops or bubbles during these collisions to better understand the fundamental behaviors in emulsions and foams. Currently, these types of devices can only be fabricated internationally. In combination with the device fabrication, the atomic force microscope has been integrated with a laser scanning confocal microscopy to give real-time images of the collisions between drops and bubbles in high resolution. The nanoscale forces between these soft objects are sensitive to the addition of surfactants, polymers and biological molecules at these interfaces. This imparts a multilevel complexity and lateral heterogeneity starting at the molecular scale and spanning to the macroscopic scale. This complexity often creates a gap in our understanding of how these molecular structures mediate dynamic interfacial forces on the nanoscale and the material behavior on a large scale.

Cantilevers to assist with fluid characterisation

Scanning Electron Microscope Image of Si Cantilever

October 2011

MCN’s Doug Mair has worked collaboratively with Dr Raymond Dagastine from the Particulate Fluids Processing Centre at Melbourne University to develop silicon cantilevers to continue the already extensive research performed by his group into the area of bubble and oil drop dynamics. The goal of the project was to design and manufacture silicon cantilevers with different spring constants and gold paddle sizes to assist with characterisation of deformable drops on Confocal and AFM systems.

The project went through several stages, from concept to design through to process development. All process development has been completed and the first wafer of cantilevers has been successfully fabricated and tested. This project brought together many of the capabilities of MCN including front side and backside pattern alignment, chrome/gold evaporation, deep reactive ion etching (Bosch Process), chemical processing through to final characterisation of product on AFM all under the one roof.

The project has been a great success and opens the door to a large range of cantilever based designs.