Argonne lab grows Chia pet style hairy electronic fibers

Lab says hairy materials could find way into sensors, batteries

Scientists at Argonne National Laboratory say they have created "hairy" electronic materials  that grow like Chia pets.

The Argonne researchers said they are interested in the tiny fibers for use in technologies like batteries, photovoltaic cells or sensors.

"'Hairy" materials offer up a lot of surface area. Many chemical reactions depend on two surfaces making contact with one another, so a structure that exposes a lot of surface area will speed the process along. (For example, grinding coffee beans gives the coffee more flavor than soaking whole beans in water.) Micro-size hairs can also make a surface that repels water, called superhydrophobic, or dust," the researchers said in a statement. 

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The tiny-fiber structure is so useful that it's evolved several times in nature. For example, blood vessels are lined with a layer of similar tiny protein "hairs," thought to help reduce wear and tear by blood cells and bacterial infections, among other properties, according to Argonne physicist Igor Aronson, who co-authored the study. 

The process that produced the Chai pet like growth included  a mixture of epoxy,  hardener and solvent inside an electric cell. Then the scientists ran an alternating current through the cell and watch long, twisting fibers spring up -- like the way Chia pets grow. The researchers said they can grow different shapes: short forests of dense straight hairs, long branching strands or "mushrooms" with tiny pearls at the tips.

In one experiment the researchers said they laid down a molecule-thick layer of material over the entire hairy structure, like a fresh blanket of snow, to add a layer of semiconductor material. Semiconductors are essential ingredients in many technologies, such as solar cells and electronics.  This experiment provided proof of concept that the polymer could be incorporated into semiconductor-based renewable energy technologies. It also proved that it could survive high temperatures, up to 150°C, an essential property for many manufacturing processes.

The study, "Self-assembled tunable networks of sticky colloidal particles," was published in Nature Communications. Researchers from the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Russian Academy of Sciences and N.I. Lobachevsky State University in Russia co-authored the study.

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