Electrospun Ultrafine Fiber Composites Containing Fumed silica: From solution rheology to materials with tunable wetting
Fumed silica (FS) particles with hydrophobic (R805) or hydrophilic (A150) surface functionalities are incorporated in polyacrylonitrile (PAN) fibers by electrospinning to produce mats with controlled wettability. Rheological measurements are conducted to elucidate the particle–polymer interactions and characterize the system while microscopic and analytic tools are used to examine FS location within both fibers and films to aid in the fundamental understanding of wetting behavior. Unlike traditional polymers, we find these systems to be gel-like, yet electrospinnable; the fumed silica networks break down into smaller aggregates during the electrospinning process and disperse both within and on the surface of the fibers. Composite nanofiber mats containing R805 FS exhibit an apparent contact angle over 130° and remain hydrophobic over 30 min, while similar mats with A150 display rapid surface-wetting with a static contact angle of ∼30°. Wicking experiments reveal that the water absorption properties can be further manipulated, with R805 FS-impregnated mats taking up only 8% water relative to mat weight in 15 min. In contrast, PAN fibers containing A150 FS absorb 425% of water in the same period, even more than the pure PAN fiber (371%). The vastly different responses to water demonstrate the versatility of FS in surface modification, especially for submicron fibrous mats. The role of fumed silica in controlling wettability is discussed in terms of their surface functionality, placement on nanofibers and induced surface roughness.