Silk: A new perspective after 5000 years

While on APAC rugby, watching the discovery channel, I watched an hour-long channel on China and the Silk Road. It talked about the wonders of the silk of the silk worm, and its many different properties. Unfortunately, the silk part of the channel was brief, and left me wondering about the applications of silk. Prior to this, my only knowledge of silk was that it is is used to create clothes. A few Google searches away led me to a compelling TED talk on Silk by Fiorenzo Omenetto, who talked about the many applications of Silk, an “ancient material of the future.”
Silk is a natural protein fiber, made specifically by the refolding of water-soluble fibroins into insoluble fibers. Silk’s most unique property is being one of the strongest natural fibers, due to its chemical structure. The high proportion of glycine allows tight packing and numerous hydrogen bonds, allowing greater strength. However, silk has many more properties, such as being biodegradable, and being implantable into the human body with no immune response. These properties allow for innumerable uses for silk in our society.
The most revolutionary application of silk, however, is the reverse engineering of silk, transforming silk back into its original “ingredients” that is protein and water. One example of the application of the reverse engineering is the use of these ingredients in the creation of film, in which researchers take advantage of the fact that proteins and water reassemble and create film. This film can be further applied into nanotechnology, in which the silk solution can be poured onto the surface of a DVD player, and the silk would replicate features on even a nanoscopic level, hence retaining the information stored on the DVD. The use of this technology can also be applied to other areas of nanotechnology, such as creating optical micro prisms or even holograms.

Omenetto demonstrating silk film retaining nano-information
Omenetto demonstrating silk film retaining nano-information

Silk engineering itself holds big implications. Being biodegradable and the strongest natural fiber, it could potentially eliminate the need for plastic bags, which are detrimental to the environment. Furthermore, material such as polystyrene would be obsolete, as silk can easily be created and thrown away without guilt. Additionally, silk can be programmably degradable. Scientists can create a silk film that is programmed to not degrade in water, and create another that is, allowing scientists full control of silk’s creation and descruction. Being biocompatible, silk can be inserted into the body with no negative repercussions, giving rise to possible ideas such as silk micro needle.
The greater implication that I see, however, is the completely new perspective into a material that is 5 millennia old. This new perspective not only allows revolutionizes the way we use silk, but also begs us to start looking at other materials with new lens. While looking for new discoveries may be important, it is just as important to look at what we have right now with different perspectives, and possibly discover new applications of old materials.

Works Cited
Clark, Douglas. “Researchers Find New Uses for Silk | ChEnected | Engineers talk chemicals, bio, safety, energy, sustainability..” ChEnected | Chemical engineers discuss careers, energy, and sustainability. | AIChE. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. .
“Film Festival.” Film Festival. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2011. .
Lewin, Menachem. Handbook of fiber chemistry. 3rd ed. Boca Raton, FL: CRC/Taylor & Francis, 2007. Print.
Omenetto, Fiorenzo. “Fiorenzo Omenetto: Silk, the ancient material of the future | Video on TED.com.” TED: Ideas worth spreading. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2011. .

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