Carbon atoms are all around us, even constituting 18.5 percent of our own bodies. We usually encounter concentrated carbon as coal or soot, but materials scientists have found that plain old carbon is capable of a lot of new tricks, as long as it’s in the right shape. One of the most intriguing prospects is called graphene, which is a sheet of carbon only one atom thick. In the ultimate “less is more” scenario, this tiny, lightweight structure has been found to be incredibly strong, flexible and even able to conduct an electric current.
A super-strong sheet of graphene by itself probably isn’t going to do you a ton of good on its own. With that in mind, researchers have been investigating ways to bundle graphene into other materials, like silk. Rather than coat the silk with additional carbon, it turns out you can feed silk worms mulberry leaves coated in a 0.2 percent graphene solution, and the worms will do the rest. The worms’ guts do the heavy lifting, integrating enough graphene into their silk that the resulting product is twice as strong as normal. It could also be heated to over nearly 2000° Fahrenheit, at which point it becomes conductive. This opens up the possibility of textile-electronics, for everything from consumer to medical applications.
World’s strongest webs
Ratcheting things up further still are graphene-infused Phocidae spiders. Spider silk is already an incredible substance, matching the relative strength of steel or kevlar, while still being able to stretch to up to five-times its length. Spraying a solution of carbon nanotubes and graphene on the spiders and their webs results in a surprisingly impressive upgrade, creating the strongest fiber that anyone has ever seen. It’s not completely clear how the graphene was integrated into the silk, but enhanced product may be capable of catching an airplane, if we can get enough of it. With four out of 15 spiders dying in the process, this amazing fiber is a lot like graphene itself— hard to come by in larger amounts.
Right now, manufacturing large amounts of graphene still isn’t practical for consumer or industrial projects. To really have enough to feed to silk worms and spiders all day, we need consistent and cost-effective ways to produce it in large quantities. Once that problem is cracked, however, a flood of applications may finally help us stop taking carbon for granted. At least for a little while.
Source: Silkworms were fed graphene to produce 'super silk' and it could be the future of wearables by Liat Clark, Wired