Written by Jonny Williamson
From examining the structure of silkworm cocoons, David Porter and Fujia Chen wrote in their paper:
“Silkworm cocoons have evolved a remarkable range of optimal structures and properties to protect moth pupae from many different natural threats. These structures are lightweight, strong and porous and therefore ideal for the development of bio-inspired composite materials.”
The research could lead to the development of lightweight armour that dissipates, rather than deflects, the force of impact that does the most damage to the human body, much like crumple-zones now commonly used in vehicles.
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A new material, which incorporates the properties observed in the cocoons, could also hold the key to fabricating low-cost, sustainable, extremely tough car panels in the world’s rapidly developing car markets, like China and India.
Fritz Vollrath, Head of the Oxford research team, notes that world supplies of cocoons are plentiful:
“Present raw silk market production globally is half a million tonnes annually.”
Though most of that is boiled and unravelled and destined for the textile industry, Vollrath notes that the sustainable production process is carbon neutral, involving a mulberry bush and worms that don’t emit methane, unlike say, cattle
With further research expected, Porter has commented that the next stage will involve finding 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.
This isn’t the first time industry and scientists have looked to nature for inspiration, Swiss engineer George de Mestral observed the way seeds from the mountain thistle stuck to his trousers after walking in the countryside, leading him to invent Velcro in 1948.