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Harvard University researchers are developing a next-generation nanofibre bullet proof vest that takes its inspiration from cotton candy. Scientists at the Harvard Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (MRSEC) are using a technology similar to cotton candy machines to spin a variety of polymers into new fabrics for military use.

Kit Parker, who leads the team, is a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve and has served multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan. Now, his sights are turned on protecting his fellow troops from a different venue. The Harvard bioengineer has made it his mission to improve wound dressings, design lighter bullet proof vests, and more.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) is supporting the MRSEC in its efforts to develop the next generation of nanofibres with the main goal being to conduct transformative research and advance the state of knowledge in multiple areas of materials science, in particular soft matter science, as well as to educate the next cohort of leaders in materials science and engineering.

Parker and his team draw their inspiration from an unlikely source: the commonplace cotton candy machine. They have adapted the technology in a unique way to spin an extensive variety of polymers, both natural and synthetic, into fabrics and materials that can be used in military applications.

When spun, the material stretches much like molten sugar does as it begins to dry into thin, silky ribbons. Just as in cotton candy production, the nanofibers are extruded through a nozzle by a combination of hydrostatic and centrifugal pressure. The resulting pile of extruded fibers form into a bagel like shape about 10 cm in diameter.

The team also used the technology to form tissue engineering scaffolds, or artificial structures upon which tissue can form and grow. Heart tissue from rats was integrated and aligned with the nanofibers and formed beating muscle.

Parker and his team of researchers expect to further refine the process for tissue engineering applications and to look for opportunities to exploit the advance in other textile applications.