Engineers create bio-inspired, silk-based materials with programmable traits

silk based material silkworm
From its discovery in the fourth millennium BCE, silk production was a guarded Chinese secret for thousands of years. Now, researchers from Tufts University have engineered silk fibers to develop materials that can be programmed to respond to their environment.

“In nature, there is a strong interplay between a material’s form and function,” Fiorenzo Omenetto, the senior researcher on the project, told Digital Trends. Due to their particular structures, many biological materials carry qualities like strength, water resistance, and the ability to cool down quickly.

silk based material pnas 1 jpg tufts now version
Tufts University
Tufts University

“Structural proteins are the building blocks of nature,” Omenetto said. “Silk, in particular, possesses compelling properties,” including its durability and biocompatibility. Meanwhile, the structure of fibroin enabled the engineers to form it into three-dimensional objects that can sense and respond to the environment, such as surgical pins that change colors when they’re about to break and screws that can be heated with infrared light.

To develop these materials, the engineers began with silk cocoons and dissolved the silk fibers in a solution to create water suspensions of proteins, which were then re-assembled in solid block forms. “We usually experience silk as a fibrillar material,” Omenetto said, “but this format comes from the spinning process to which the protein undergoes in the spinneret of caterpillars and spiders.

“The new format of silk described in the study opens the door to the fabrication of high performing plastic-like materials made of silk fibroin,” he added.

Omenetto and his team need to conduct more research to refine their material but they think it could one day be used to support orthopedic devices that can release medicines or mechanical parts that can sense and convey material failures.

A paper describing their work was published online this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Emerging Tech

It’s no flying car, but the e-scooter had a huge impact on city streets in 2018

Within just a year, electric scooters have fundamentally changed how we navigate cities. From San Francisco to Paris, commuters have a new option that’s more fun than mass transit, easier than a bike, and definitely not a car.
Emerging Tech

This unusual nature-inspired robot is equally at home on land or in the water

This intriguing, nature-inspired robot may look unusual, but it's impressively capable of moving on both land and water without problem. Heck, it can even travel on ice if necessary.
Emerging Tech

Warm ski beanie instantly hardens into a head-protecting helmet upon impact

Wool hats are way more comfortable than hard helmets. You know what they're not? Safer. That could soon change, thanks to an innovative new ski beanie which instantly hardens upon impact.
Emerging Tech

Transplanted pig hearts show promise in baboon trials. Are humans next?

Researchers in Germany have successfully transplanted modified pig hearts into baboons. The results take us one step closer to ending organ transplant waiting lists for good. Here's why.
Emerging Tech

This exotic new material somehow gets thicker when stretched

Scientists at the U.K.’s University of Leeds have discovered a synthetic material which actually gets thicker the more it’s stretched. Here are some of the things it could be used for.
Emerging Tech

Full-fledged drone delivery service set to land in remote Canadian community

Some drone delivery operations seem rather crude in their execution, but Drone Delivery Canada is building a comprehensive platform that's aiming to take drone delivery to the next level.
Giveaways

Print your heart’s desire: Enter our giveaway to win a free Monoprice 3D printer

We’re giving away a $400 Monoprice MP Voxel 3D Printer. It's easy to use, especially for beginners, with its simple menu system and touchscreen display. It comes fully assembled so you can spend more time printing instead of setting up.
Emerging Tech

Intel wants its fleet of drones to monitor America’s aging, unsafe bridges

Intel has signed a deal to use its Falcon 8+ drones to carry out bridge inspections. The hope is that these drones will be useful in spotting potential problems before they become serious.
Emerging Tech

An A.I. cracks the internet’s squiggly letter bot test in 0.5 seconds

How do you prove that you’re a human when communicating on the internet? The answer used to be by solving a CAPTCHA puzzle. But maybe not for too much longer. Here is the reason why.
Emerging Tech

Makerbot is back with a new 3D printer that’s faster and more precise than ever

MakerBot's new Method 3D printer aims to bridge the gap between home 3D printers and more industrial 3D printing tech. Here are a few of the tantalizing things you can expect from it.
Deals

Take to the skies with these 5 drones on sale for under $50

On the hunt for some cool tech for under $50? We've rounded up 5 drones under $50 that you can still get before Christmas. These models are great for kids, adults, and anyone just getting started with drones.
Emerging Tech

With this robotic garage, retrieving your car is like using a vending machine

Remembering where we parked our cars can be a real pain. But what if our cars came to find us, rather than the other way around? A new automated robot parking valet system aims to help.
Cars

Best Products of 2018

Our reception desk has so many brown boxes stacked up, it looks like a loading dock. We’re on a first-name basis with the UPS guy. We get new dishwashers more frequently than most people get new shoes. What we’re trying to say is: We…
Emerging Tech

A lidar-equipped truck knows exactly how much de-icer to apply on roads

Lidar is best known as the laser-based technology that helps self-driving cars sense their surroundings. But the city of Knoxville has another, more seasonal use for it: De-icing roads.