Chinese scientists on the hunt for electrically conducive silk

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In China, researchers at Tsinghua University are working on various methods to make silk conductible for use in body sensors—including a plan to feed silkworms conductive nanotechnology.

Wearable body sensors, such as smart socks and workout clothes that measure exertion, are already commercially available but are sensitive and subject to stretching. Silk has the necessary strength and flexibility, but lacks the ability to conduct electricity well.

Enter Yingying Zhang, Ph.D., and his colleagues at TU, who tried out two methods. First, they tried infusing the silk with N-doped carbon and graphitized particles, and were able to use the silk to develop strain sensors, pressure sensors and a dual-mode sensor. Second, the team fed either graphene or carbon nanotubes to silkworms. The silk incorporated some of the nanoparticles, but could not be used to produce electrically conductive fibers. However, the researchers remain hopeful they can make the second, simpler method work.

“There is a whole world of possibilities for silk sensors at the moment. Silk is the ideal material for fabricating sensors that are worn on the body,” Zhang tells Science Daily. “One possibility we foresee is for them to be used as an integrated wireless system that would allow doctors to more easily monitor patients remotely so that they can respond to their medical needs more rapidly than ever before.”

The work was recently presented at the 254th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society.