Nano-Textiles Are Engineering a Safer World: Juan Hinestroza and Margaret Frey Are Pushing the Textile Frontier by Developing Nanofibers to Act as Biological Sensors and Shields against Viruses, Bacteria, and Hazardous Particles

By Ulrich, Clare | Human Ecology, November 2006 | Go to article overview

Nano-Textiles Are Engineering a Safer World: Juan Hinestroza and Margaret Frey Are Pushing the Textile Frontier by Developing Nanofibers to Act as Biological Sensors and Shields against Viruses, Bacteria, and Hazardous Particles


Ulrich, Clare, Human Ecology


Stone, bronze, and iron have transformed human civilization so dramatically that major time periods are identified with them. Juan Hinestroza, an assistant professor in the Department of Textiles and Apparel (TXA), believes that nanotechnology will revolutionize the near future in much the same way.

Hinestroza and his TXA colleague Margaret Frey, the Lois and Mel Tukman Assistant Professor, are using nanotechnology to create radically new textiles and to enhance conventional textiles with greater functionality. Hinestroza calls what he does a "technological oxymoron."

"People perceive textile manufacturing as an old technology, but it can provide the bridge to making nanotechnology a commercial reality," he explains. "What I'm doing is merging two revolutionary technologies that are 200 years apart (textile technology and nanotechnology), complementing the old technology with new developments in science. I say 'revolutionary' because both technologies have changed the way we see the world."

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Having joined the College of Human Ecology faculty in January 2006, Hinestroza is developing remarkable fibers potentially capable of filtering out viruses, bacteria, and hazardous particles too small to see with the naked eye. He received a John D. Watson Young Investigator Award from the New York State Office of Science, Technology, and Academic Research in 2005 to expedite this work, which is being done in collaboration with scientists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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"It was humbling to get that award," Hinestroza reflects, "because the award is named in honor of James Watson, who received the Nobel Prize for discovering the structure of the DNA, and he's still alive." Hinestroza also receives support from grants of the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Commerce.

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Merging the old and the new, Hinestroza uses a process called electrospinning to create the fibers from which he constructs his much-in-demand biofilters. Electro-spinning has been around since 1934 but has been used on the commercial scale only since the early 1990s. It involves dissolving a polymer--either a natural polymer derived from plant-based cellulose or a synthetic polymer such as nylon or polyester--in a solvent, squeezing the liquid polymer solution through a pinhole, and applying high voltage to the pinhole. The electrical field pulls the polymer solution through the air, stretching it into a tiny fiber. An electron microscope is needed to see these fibers, which are less than 100 nanometers in diameter, or 1,000 times smaller than conventional fibers.

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"Once you get to a really small-size scale like this, the forces that dominate everyday life on a large scale suddenly become much less important, and properties like friction and flow past objects that are less significant on a large scale become the dominant terms," Frey explains. "Nanoscale fibers are roughly equivalent in size to air molecules. So if we're looking at filtration devices, nanofibers make very effective filters because they don't get in the way of the air flowing past them. And less power is needed to push the air through the filter because the volume of the fibers isn't blocking the air flow."

Ingenious modifications Hinestroza has made to the electrospinning process enabled him to create his supersensitive biofilters. By manipulating magnetized nanoparticles in a magnetic field during electrospinning, he can direct the flow of the polymer and target chemical molecules to deposit layer after layer onto the surface of the electrospun fibers. The advantage is that both the size and the position of the nanofibers can now be precisely controlled. …

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