Silk is one of the oldest fibres known to man. It originates from China which remains the biggest producer in the world. It is characterised by low density which results in light, soft and comfortable clothing.
Silk has always been perceived as a luxury material and today it still holds the aura of beauty and decadence that it held centuries ago. While clothing is still the key application, silk becomes more common in other fields, such as medical, where it is used to repair bones, muscles or ligaments, as well as in optics, photonics and electronics.
And now there is a new field of applications that opened up thanks to the development of a graphene reinforced silk thread.
Graphene was discovered in 2004 by two scientists from the University of Manchester. It is a two-dimensional atomic crystal made up of carbon atoms with a number of amazing properties. Graphene is 200 times stronger than steel but it is incredibly flexible. It is the thinnest material existing and it has excellent electricity and thermal conductivity. Its potential applications can be seen in electronics, medicine, aerospace, energy storage, solar technologies, etc. It could be used to produce flexible smartphone screens, reinforce planes or F1 cars or to develop flexible and ultra-light batteries with long lifespan.
The latest find, by scientists at the Tsinghua University in Beijing, opens up even more opportunities in the sector or wearables and smart clothing. The Chinese scientists created extremely strong silk that could withstand 50 percent more stress than standard fabric and conduct electricity. This was achieved by feeding graphene-covered mulberry leaves to silk worms. The method is natural as it eliminates coating, however it has to be further researched. Scientists have to figure out the right amount of graphene the worms should be fed with and fully understand how the material makes it to the silk thread.
The potential applications are infinite: from medical implants, solar panels (just imagine silk curtains that capture and conduct solar energy needed in your home or a scarf capable of charging your smartphone), thermal clothing or smart clothes with build-in multifunctional sensors or computing devices.
The advantage of this method is that it can be scaled up easily. Imagining that the fabric is flexible, strong and washable, it can be a real breakthrough. There’s only one question, what will PETA say about this…
Further reading: what is graphene and what are its applications: http://graphene-flagship.eu/