Fibers of micrometer and submicrometer diameters have been of significant interest in recent years owing to their advanced applications in diverse fields such as optoelectronics, regenerative medicine, piezoelectrics, ceramic materials, etc. There are a number of processes to make thin fibers including electrospinning, melt blowing, and recently developed Forcespinning. However, use of solvents or heat to lower viscosity for processing is common to all existing polymer fiber manufacturing methods, and a greener approach to making fibers remains a challenge. Interestingly, nature has engineered spiders and silkworms with a benign way of making mechanically strong and tough fibers through an intricate self-assembly of protein constituents during the fiber formation process. Comprehending the biosynthetic process and precisely replicating it has been a challenging task. However, we find that extruding small functional segments into solid fibrillar structures, through mediation of chemical interactions between the subunits, is a design approach that can be broadly adapted from nature to realize a greener fiber manufacturing process. Using the robust chemistry of thiol-ene photopolymerization, we demonstrate here that a photocurable mixture of a multifunctional acrylate, a tetrafunctional thiol, and a photoinitiator can be processed into continuous fibers by in situ photopolymerization during electrospinning under ambient conditions. The fibers are mechanically robust and have excellent chemical and thermal stability. While electrospinning has been used to demonstrate this concept, the chemistry could be broadly adapted into other fiber manufacturing methods to produce fibers without using solvents or heat.
- Green chemistry