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Silkworms Programmed to Produce Super-Strong, Conductive Silk via Graphene

Dec 20, 2016 10:53 AM EST

Silk is a widely used naturally sourced fiber that is popular in textile applications not just for its beauty but also for its mechanical strength. However, it appears they can also be stronger and tougher when silkworms are fed carbon nanotubes and graphene.

According to Futurism, it can be remembered that graphene is a carbon nanoparticle that is considered a "miracle" material. It has shown potential in fields such as energy, electronics, and medicine. Silkworms, the larvae form of silk moths, spin threads from silk proteins in their salivary glands.

A study led by Yingying Zhang from Tsinghua University examines the effects of adding graphene to the worms' diet of mulberry leaves. 

Results have shown that not only did the carbon-enhanced silk conduct electricity, it's also twice as tough as regular silk and can withstand at least 50-percent higher stress before breaking.

This "smart" textile can be used in medicine, athletics, wearable electronics and more.

According to their study, the researchers sprayed mulberry leaves with an aqueous solution that has 0.2 percent by weight of either carbon nanotubes or graphene and then collected the silk after the worms spun their cocoons.

Collecting the as-spun silk fibers is standard in silk production, so feeding the silkworms the carbon nanotubes and graphene was simpler than treating regular silk with the nanomaterials dissolved in chemical solvents.

The study said the carbon-enhanced silk was twice as tough as regular silk. Zhang's team tested conductivity and structure after heating the silk fibers at 1,050 degrees Celsius to "carbonize" the silk protein and even resulted in conduction.

Additionally, the silk fibers had a more ordered crystal structure.

Garments that are made from these "smart textiles" have so many practical and potential uses than those created using traditional materials. A conductive fabric with this carbon-enhanced silk could have applications in biomechanics, as these could show athletes where the tension and pressure is applied on areas of the body while exercising.

They could also be used for electronic clothing that can "talk to phones" and can make biodegradable medical implants. 

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