Feeding Silkworms Graphene and Nanotubes Produces Super Strong Silk

October 11, 2016 | Erica Tennenhouse

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The high-strength, conductive material could be suitable for wearable electronics and medical implants.

Silkworms — the larvae of silk moths — spin strong threads that can be woven into clothing, upholstery, and bedding. Now, scientists from Tsinghua University in China have found a innovative way to get silkworms to produce even stronger silk.

Writing in the journal Nano Letters, the researchers describe how feeding silkworms mulberry leaves sprayed with either graphene or single-walled carbon nanotubes led to the production of silk that was twice as strong as regular silk.

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“We report mechanically enhanced silk directly collected by feeding…silkworms with single-walled carbon nanotubes and graphene,” the authors write. “We found that parts of the fed carbon nanomaterials were incorporated into the as-spun silk fibers.”

Interestingly, the new silk fibers also conducted electricity when heated. With these properties, the silk could potentially find applications in “wearable electronics, biodegradable sensors and medical implants,” according to Chemical & Engineering News.

In the past, scientists have altered silk by adding dyes, antimicrobial agents, and conductive polymers either directly to the threads, or by lacing the silkworms’ food with these ingredients, which was the method used in this new research.

Although the generation of high-strength silk was successful, Chemical & Engineering News notes that a couple of questions remain. The researchers are still unclear on how the silkworms incorporate the added nanomaterials into their silk, and how much of the consumed nanomaterials ended up in the silk versus how much got excreted was not measured.

According to the authors, “silkworm silk is gaining significant attention from both the textile industry and research society because of its outstanding mechanical properties and lustrous appearance.” These new results are “expected to open up possibilities for the large-scale production of high strength silk fibers.”

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