When trying to deal with a problem we’re facing, we often attempt to create radical new solutions rather than revisiting and modifying older ideas. However, in a TED presentation this past March, Fiorenzo Omenetto has chosen to look to the past to find valuable and resilient materials to replace our currently unfavourable ones. More specifically, Omenetto has focused his research on the applications of silk in materials engineering. The most commonly-used silk fibre is produced by the silkworm Bombyx mori, and therefore there will be no Spiderman references in the article (I’m kidding, it’s actually because Spiderman sucks).
Historically, silk has been used primarily as a fibre in textile goods such as clothing and fabrics. On the other hand, Omenetto’s research is predominately focused on using silk as a bulk material, where silk (or more specifically, fibroin, one of two proteins that make up silk) demonstrates remarkable properties. It’s biodegradable, non-toxic, and extremely durable. These properties make the hardened fibroin applicable in a myriad of areas including, but not limited to, biomedical applications and environmentally-safe technologies.
Within the body, fibroin is completely non-toxic and does not trigger an immune response, so our anatomy can cope with the material. As a result, it can be used to replace bones and cartilage, as well as fasten broken pieces together much like stainless steel braces do now. In addition, the silk can be easily altered to make it “programmably degradable,” meaning that the time it takes to degrade can be adjusted, allowing for more accurate drug delivery. In fact, on top of all that unimportant stuff, ink can be replaced with silk networks to create functioning LED tattoos.
Outside of the body, fibroin is a very environmentally safe material. Due to its short degradation time in water, products such as silk disposable cups can be thrown away without occupying our already overflowing landfills. It can also be used as a packaging material, for both manufactured goods and foods because it’s apparently edible (steak was never that great anyway).
Despite being such an ancient material, new engineering innovations have shown that silk is indeed a material of the future. Capable of replacing our wasteful materials and parts of our own bodies, fibroin silk is also revolutionizing the digital world by allowing electronic devices to be grown on thin, flexible films. The Silk Road is long gone, but with Omenetto’s silk optical fibres, we may just be entering the age of the Silk Superhighway.