Advanced Fibers


Fibers represent a remarkably old and abundant material form. In fact, fibers are important in our individual life, starting from the first day, and, have profoundly influenced the development of mankind for many thousands of years. Today, the development of advanced fibers is gaining new significance as a motor for industrial innovation, particularly in composite materials and high-tech or medical applications. It is our goal to contribute to this research field to support a safer and more sustainable living environment.

Novel fibers

Through the example of our newly developed continuous fluid-core fiber it becomes readily apparent how novel fibers can act as innovation motors early in the added value chain. The basic form of the fluid-core fiber can be adapted into completely different fields of application, ranging from damping of composite materials to drug administration in the medical domain. Our affiliation to the department “materials meet life” allows us to consider complex medical or biological applications because we also have the required biological expertise from our colleagues in-house. This unique combination can generate significant added value for our research partners and open access to otherwise inaccessible markets.

Understanding synthetic fibers inside-out

To reach our goals, we focus mainly on the development of novel synthetic fibers. This focus is economically relevant since two thirds of all fibers produced world-wide are indeed synthetic. It is important to understand that a synthetic fiber is much more than a simple polymer thread; the performance determining factor of a fiber lies within its molecular structure. Inside there are small crystals, which tie together the polymer molecules; and there are more amorphous regions in a fiber; the interplay between these domains directly determines the fiber flexibility and tensile strength. Along these lines, we analyze and modify the fiber structure on nanometer to micrometer scales using cutting edge analytical tools and by controlling the melt-spinning process in new ways.

Interacting with the surface
Many relevant material properties are determined at the surface; that is upon contact with the outside world. Particularly significant is contact with aqueous or humid environments. We have the means to study such interactions in great detail and derive innovative strategies to modify the specific surface behavior. Modification of surface properties can come at the price of modified substrate performance, which is why we focus on surface modification approaches that leave the mechanical flexibility of the (fiber) substrate untouched. For example, we develop and use low-pressure plasma technologies in combination with partially customized molecules that allow us to obtain very high quality films already at sub-nanometer and nanometer film thickness. To study such films in detail we use modern surface analytical tools in combination with realistic assessments including cell and bacteria trials or accelerated washing tests.
About bond making and bond breaking

Profound understanding of chemical bond making and bond breaking is required to synthesize new functional molecules. Important aspects that we focus on include “green” yet economical synthesis routes as well as the understanding of how molecules disintegrate at the end of the material lifetime. The latter includes aspects like ageing or physical influences like heat or radiation. In this area we make use of highly modern analytics tools including synchrotron radiation at the VUV beamline of the Paul Scherrer Instittute (PSI). Having this know-how at hand, we are able to tailor interesting properties like corrosion resistance, chemical stability, flame retardency or biological functionality.

The possibility to synthesize our own original molecules allows us to finally provide industry partners with exclusivities based on strong substance  patents for commercial exploitation. This is an invaluable asset that helps carry new substances through legal admission procedures like the REACH registration.
Together with industry

We fund half of our expenditures from collaborative projects with industry, where we practice different models of collaboration, ranging from bilateral to national to international schemes. The typical goal of such collaboration is to generate innovation in the form of intellectual property in the business area of the industry partner, which adds to competitiveness or allows market expansion. A contract of collaboration defines the rights of use for each partner; we typically like to keep the rights for further research outside the business area of the project partner. If a development or part of it becomes useful in another field of application, this can synergistically help market introduction, e.g. REACH registration.

Pre-competitive research
In order to maintain a high level of excellence and gain research results that are useful for future (5-10 years) industry transfers, we are constantly performing fundamental research at internationally highly recognized level even before collaboration with any industry partners is established. For this line of pre-competitive and fundamental research activity we preferably collaborate with the Swiss National Funds or with specialized international funding schemes and publish in high ranking international scientific journals. We host a number of PhD students who obtain their degree at a partner university with their results obtained at Empa. Besides collaboration with different universities in Europe and the USA, we closely collaborate with the ETH.  In cases of common interest in the fundamental scientific activity of a PhD thesis, we can also host industry-sponsored thesis projects.

Movie of our lab Advanced Fibers

"Spirituality is a source of inspiration for me in personal and professional life"

  • We developed luminescent melt-spun fibers, which can enhance the performance of solar cells. Using molecular dynamics simulations, we analyzed the impact of dye solubility in polymer melts on the resulting optical properties.

  • Rudolf Hufenus is guest editor of a special issue of Materials (impact factor 2.972), entitled "Novel Synthetic Fibers for Textile Applications". Submission to this open access journal are very welcome (deadline 31 December 2020). 

  • Fragrant liquid-core fibers

    We have developed fibers that release the scent of roses or cloves – permanently. What's more, the liquid-core fibers can also be equipped with other active ingredients.

  • Honour for Dirk Hegemann

    Dirk Hegemann has been appointed "Editor-in-Chief" for the journal Plasma Processes and Polymers from 2020 on after acting for two years as "Co-Editor-in-Chief". Congratulations! (January 2020)