Integrating a micro-mixing mechanism and on-line thermal processing for the large-scale ejection of polymeric liquid threads for producing ultrafine fibers
Micro/nanofibers are structures that nowadays have a wide range of cutting-edge applications including energy generation and storage devices, smart textiles, cell growth, and tissue engineering. These fibrous materials are mostly produced from polymer solutions spun, under laminar flow conditions, into nanofibers by external forces. However, the turbulent interaction of gas–liquid interfaces offers an innovative approach for the high-throughput production of nanofibers. Here, we present Flow Blurring (FB), a solely pneumatic approach for the massive production of liquid threads of polymer solutions, which relies on a micro-mixing mechanism that triggers a turbulent motion capable of fragmenting a viscous flow. The as-ejected threads are subsequently processed thermally, on-line in a single-step, thus producing micro/nanofibers that form mats. The method operates with relatively large liquid flow rates, equivalent of a high production rate, and is thus suitable for industrial production of engineered nanomaterials. In this work, we used solutions of poly(vinyl alcohol) (PVA) to study its ejection and fragmentation dynamics through computational fluid dynamics (CFD) simulations. In addition, the physics underlying the regulation of the liquid flow rate in FB atomizers are proposed. Fibers with typical diameters in the range 400–800 nm were produced by online heating of the liquid threads. Liquid ejection experiments were performed under different operating conditions thus verifying the capability of the method for synthesizing submicrometer-sized fibers with high uniformity and production rates suitable for scaling up.