Car panels made of silkworm cocoons, clothing that can camouflage the wearer at the flick of a switch and a “smart” shirt with a phone and power source embedded in the fabric.
Scientists, some with funding from the U.S. Air Force, have made breakthroughs that could eventually make all this reality.
Research published on Wednesday reveals advances in materials science that could transform industries struggling with the rising cost and scarcity of raw materials, as well as save lives in post-conflict countries still clearing minefields.
In a study published in the Royal Society journal Interface, Oxford University researchers David Porter and Fujia Chen examine the structure of silkworm cocoons, which are extremely light and tough, with properties that could inspire advanced materials for use in protective helmets and light-weight armor.
“Silkworm cocoons have evolved a remarkable range of optimal structures and properties to protect moth pupae from many different natural threats,” Porter and Chen said in their paper. These structures are lightweight, strong and porous and therefore “ideal for the development of bio-inspired composite materials.”
Even more tantalizing from an economic standpoint, Porter and Chen’s research, which was funded by a grant from the U.S. Air Force, could point to a new material for fabricating car panels in some of the fastest-growing car markets – China and India.
Their research could also lead to lightweight armor that dissipates rather than deflects the particular components of a blast that do the most damage to the human body – much like crumple zones in modern cars or sound-absorbing sonar tiles that make submarines harder to detect.
Fritz Vollrath, who heads the Oxford research group, said supplies of cocoons are plentiful. “Present raw silk market production globally is half a million tons annually.”
Most of that is boiled and unraveled for textiles, but Vollrath says there are potential applications for the cocoons themselves, particularly in the developing world and potentially in car panels that are very tough and totally sustainable.
The researchers are working on carbon footprint calculations but Vollrath notes that the production process is probably carbon neutral, involving a mulberry bush and worms that, unlike cattle, don’t emit any methane.
Further research is needed. Porter said the next stage will be to find a way to replicate the structures found in the cocoons or use them as a base material impregnated with gels as a way of developing a scalable production process.
There are plenty of precedents for the commercial exploitation of structures found in the natural world. One of the best known is the so-called ‘lotus effect’, the properties of the lotus leaf that keeps them extremely clear of dust and dirt. Researchers found tiny nodules on the surface of the leaf that stops water from settling on them. Droplets form and simply roll off, gathering any dirt as they go.
It was this research that eventually led to the development of self-cleaning windows and advanced exterior paints.
Velcro was developed after Swiss engineer George de Mestral observed the way the flowers of the mountain thistle stuck to his trousers after a walk in the countryside.