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Researchers from Brown and Tsinghua Universities have developed sponge-like materials made from ceramic nanofibers. The materials could be useful in a variety of applications, from insulation to water purification. Gao/Li/Wu/Brown/Tsinghua

A new sponge-like material made from nanoscale ceramic fibers may soon be used in a number of applications including water purification and flexible insulating materials.

Researchers from Brown University have developed the ultralight material that is highly porous, compressible and heat-resistant.

“The basic science question we tried to answer is how can we make a material that's highly deformable but resistant to high temperature,” Huajian Gao, a professor in Brown University’s School of Engineering and a corresponding author of the research, said in a statement. “This paper demonstrates that we can do that by tangling ceramic nanofibers into a sponge, and the method we use for doing it is inexpensive and scalable to make these in large quantities.”

Gao explained that ceramic fibers at the nanoscale are incredibly strong.

“At the nanoscale, cracks and flaws become so small that it takes much more energy to activate them and cause them to propagate,” Gao said. “Nanoscale fibers also promote deformation mechanisms such as what is known as creep, where atoms can diffuse along grain boundaries, enabling the material to deform without breaking.”

The nanoscale dynamics enable the material to be deformable and flexible while maintaining heat resistance. However, the materials are difficult to make and are expensive, time-consuming and often do not work well with ceramics.

The research team used a method called solution blow-spinning, which uses air pressure to drive a liquid solution containing ceramic material through a tiny syringe aperture and solidifies into nanoscale fibers that are collected in a spinning cage.

The material is then heated to burn away the solvent material, which leaves a mass of tangled ceramic nanofibers.

In experiments the material was well-equipped to be used in both high-temperature insulation and as a use in water purification.

“The process we used for making these is extremely versatile; it can be used with a great variety of different types of ceramic starting materials,” Hui Wu, one of the corresponding authors from Tsinghua University in China, said in a statement. “So we think there's huge prospect for potential applications.”

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