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Silkworms Can Now Produce 'Spiderman-like' Super Silk by Eating Carbon Nanotubes, Graphene

Oct 12, 2016 04:00 AM EDT

A study shows that if fed with certain nanomaterials, silkworms can produce super silk that can withstand breakage at 50 percent and is even conductive by electricity.

A team of researchers led by Yingying Zhang from Tsinghua University made an experiment on silkworms to find out what could be the possible effects of feeding carbon nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes and graphene, to the silkworm-produced silk.

According to the journal Nano Letters, it is because of silkworm silk's "outstanding mechanical properties and luxurous appearance" that attracts attention from both the textile industry and research society. For the researchers, what seduced them to this particular silk is the possibility of creating a tougher and stronger material.

Read: Move Over, Sewing! Scientists Discover Self-Healing Fabric Using Special Liquid

For the study, Zhang and her team fed a silkworm with mulberry leaves that have 0.2 percent by total weight of either carbon nanotubes and graphene -- nanomaterials that are 200 times stronger than structural steel. The nanomaterials were sprayed on the leaves, and just as expected, the larvae cocoon itself and spun thread of silk. The silk is produced by a silk protein from the worm's salivary glands. However, unlike normal production wherein you need to apply dyes and antimicrobial compounds, the super silks produced by the silkworms are already treated.

Aside from its unusual strength and durability, the silk is conductive to electricity. According to Scientific American report, the silk fibers were heated at 1,050 °C to carbonize the silk protein, and then their conductivity and structure were analyzed.

It is still unknown how silkworms produce these super silks and how much nanomaterials are needed to be fed to the silkworms. However, this study will help the future of silk production and can even expand studies related to research. 

To learn more about how silkworms produce silk, check out the video below.

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