Graphene-Laced Worm Food Produces Stronger Silk

Silkworms spin a tougher product when the world's strongest material is added to their diet.


For stronger silk, just feed graphene to silkworms. So suggests a study out of Tsinghua University in China.

Scientists there coated silkworm (Bombyx mori) food-favorite mulberry leaves with single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNTs) and graphene and found that some of the materials became incorporated into the silk spun by the worms.

All told, the special dietary additive made the resulting silk tougher, with much better elasticity and increased electrical conductivity.

"The successful generation of these SWNT- or graphene-embedded silks by in vivo feeding is expected to open up possibilities for the large-scale production of high-strength silk fibers," the team wrote.

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Textile makers and technology developers are just a couple of industry sectors that would be interested in the development – think stronger protective fabrics, clothing embedded with electronics or medical implants that biodegrade, as Chemical & Engineering News notes.

The strength gained by the dietary additive should probably not surprise. Graphene is the strongest material in the world. Made from a carbon layer that's only 1 inch thick, it conducts electricity, doesn't rust and is 100 times stronger than steel of the same thickness. Though full of promise, the material is still trying to wend its way into daily, practical applications.

Silk, meanwhile, is plenty strong on its own, though not as strong as spider silk. It's prized worldwide for its smooth texture. Silkworms larvae manufacture it when building their cocoons, and the material has helped clothe people for thousands of years.

It seems now the two materials could be a match made in heaven. Still unanswered, though, is exactly what, biologically, the silkworms are doing to incorporate the material into their silk and just how much of it is passed into the silk vs. being excreted.

The scientists have recently published their findings in the journal Nano Letters.

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