Why hi-tech textile engineering requires SEM for fiber analysis

By Luigi Raspolini - April 25, 2019

It’s been a long time since the textile industry relied exclusively on natural fibers. Over the decades, synthetic fibers have proven to be cheaper, easier to produce and often perform better. At the same time, chemical treatments have been developed that improve the smoothness and the resistance of both natural and synthetic fibers, which has resulted in higher quality products. Read this blog for more information on how electron microscopy can play a fundamental role in the textile engineering and fiber analysis process.

Want to know how SEM technology is put into practice for the purpose of textile analysis?
Download the Case Study on the examination of archaeological grave goods

The secret of high-performance sportswear lies not just in the design, but also in the innovative technology behind the product. Special knitting techniques, combined with highly advanced textile materials, are two of the most important aspects when developing new technical sports clothing, military suits, and many other highly-engineered fabrics. It is a development that has been made possible largely due to the advent of synthetic fibers, which has heavily boosted the elasticity of textiles and reduced the friction coefficient with air or water.

How to observe the effect of chemicals on fibers with electron microscopy

To provide these kinds of specifications, the chemical composition, as well as the size and surface morphology of fibers had to be investigated. As the size of the feature to be observed is too small for optical devices, using an electron microscope has become a common practice among textile materials developers. Not only do these devices provide images of the knitting pattern, but the actual surface of the fiber can also be inspected, and any imperfection can be detected.

          textile research microscope fiber analysis sem

Figure 1 & 2: a wool sample imaged with an SEM at different magnification and from different angles.
Textile materials are usually non-conductive, therefore an SEM with a low vacuum option is crucial for best imaging.

Specific chemical treatments can therefore be designed to smooth the surface and remove any artifacts or unevenness. Scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) can then be used to correlate the exposure time and the concentration of chemicals to optimize the productivity and reduce unnecessary costs.

Hollow fibers require a more sophisticated production process, but the added value of the final product has attracted the attention of many big players. Besides saving on raw materials, fibers can be applied in the most diverse fields and deliver improved elasticity and a lower weight. Thermal exchange properties can also be engineered according to the application.

It is of crucial importance to investigate the shape of the cavity of these fibers to verify the accuracy of the production process and observe and measure how they react to thermal and tensile stress.

Why SEM technology is highly suitable for the research and development of new materials

The trivial time to image, and the large set of accessories available on modern SEMs, make them the ideal tool for the research and development of new materials, and for inspection of the final product, as part of quality control protocols. In a SEM, the fibers can be imaged while being stretched with a tensile stage, or during temperature changes induced using temperature controlled stages. Cross sections can be imaged while taking care not to alter the shape of the fiber, which could potentially lead to wrong results.

Want to discover more on the applications of SEM technology for the purpose of textile analysis? Amazing results and information were collected while inspecting medieval textile materials to investigate how different materials were combined together to increase the quality and the aesthetics of royal clothing. Discover more about how SEM was used for this fascinating investigation by downloading this case study:

Download the Case Study on archaeological grave goods

About the author

Luigi Raspolini is an application engineer for the Thermo Scientific Phenom Desktop SEM product range at Thermo Fisher Scientific. Luigi is constantly looking for new approaches to materials characterization, surface roughness measurements, and composition analysis. He is passionate about improving user experiences and demonstrating the best way to image every kind of sample.

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