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Graphene-eating silkworms spin super strong threads

Scientists aren't sure exactly how the materials are incorporated into the secreted silk solution inside the worms.

By
Brooks Hays
When fed graphene, or carbon nanotubes, silkworms produced stronger silk. Pictured, a silkworm, the larval stage of the silk moth, spins silk to build its cocoon. Photo by SarDiuS/Shutterstock
When fed graphene, or carbon nanotubes, silkworms produced stronger silk. Pictured, a silkworm, the larval stage of the silk moth, spins silk to build its cocoon. Photo by SarDiuS/Shutterstock

BEIJING, Oct. 11 (UPI) -- When fed graphene, or carbon nanotubes, silkworms become like Spider-Man, spinning reinforced silk threads.

Domesticated silk moths, Bombyx mori, normally subsist on mulberry leaves. The worms are bred for one purpose, to spin silk threads.

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Researchers at Tsinghua University and Donghua University in China sprayed the worms' normal mulberry meal with a solution containing single-walled carbon nanotubes. It's not the first time researchers have incorporated nanoparticles into the worm's diet to yield new and improved threads. Still, the results of the latest experiment proved noteworthy.

The graphene-enhanced silk threads were able to withstand twice as much stress as normal silk threads and were 50 percent tougher. When the researchers heated the threads to carbonize the silk proteins, they found the hybrid threads conducted electricity.

Yaopeng Zhang, a materials scientist from Donghua University, told Chemical & Engineering News their study offers an "easy way to produce high-strength silk fibers on a large scale."

Zhang and the research team say their findings -- published in the journal Nano Letters -- present new questions.

Scientists aren't sure exactly how the nanotubes are incorporated into the secreted silk solution inside the worms. They're also not sure how much of the graphene is incorporated and how much is excreted as waste.

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