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Creating "Super" Silk


Animal derived fibres such as silk have the potential to be used as a replacement for traditional reinforcement materials in composites which require high strength to weight ratio. These fibres have many attractive properties including low density, high strength and high impact resistance. Interest in using natural fibres has been greatly increased in the face of rising oil prices and increasing environmental awareness.


Natural silk has a number of advantages over carbon/glass fibres and Kevlar, including toughness, recyclability and biodegradability. Professor Liu Xiang-Yang, from the Physics Department has developed a technology to produce enhanced strength silkworm silk with potential to replace synthetic fibres. Prof Liu's invention is a low-cost manufacturing process for production of silk fibre having mechanical performance rivalling spider silk, the current gold standard for fibre strength. The enhanced fibre is made from silkworms in a special process which increases the strength and breaking energy by 40% and 200% respectively over normal silkworm silk fibre. This enhanced silkworm silk degrades more slowly compared to spider silk, giving it a longer shelf-life and greater storage stability. The enhanced silkworm silk is lighter than Kevlar and has potential to replace Kevlar in many applications including body armour, automobiles and aerospace.


The enhanced silkworm silk has the same protein primary structure, fibre diameter and length of normal silkworm silk. Important natural properties of silkworm silk such as its aesthetic characteristics are largely retained in the enhanced silkworm silk. Therefore, like normal silkworm silk, the enhanced silkworm silk is also suitable for use in fashion and furnishing applications, except that it has additional performance characteristic. Imagine a bullet-proof silk shirt!


Besides the attractive characteristics of the enhanced silkworm silk, Prof Liu's proprietary production process for the silk represents another major advantage which will make it viable for the mass production of the enhanced fibre. In essence, the process can be inserted as a single additional step into the existing standard production processes of silkworm silk with minimum disruption or overall change to existing processes or facilities. As such, incremental investment required by existing silk manufacturers to produce the enhanced silkworm silk is low. This makes industrial scale production of the enhanced silkworm silk highly achievable and cost-effective.


NUS is currently collaborating with Republic polytechnic under the National Research Foundation's (NRF) Translational Research & Development (TRD) grant scheme to bring this technology closer to market. NUS also welcomes inquires from potential commercial partners to develop industrial-scale utilisation of this new technology. The ideal partner should have the capabilities in large scale silkworm silk production as well as supporting expertises in fibre testing and design and development of high performance composite fabrics. Through such partnership, NUS aims to bring the technology to market to produce new materials that will meet the requirements of specific applications addressing existing and future market needs for high technology and high performance materials. Furthermore, NUS believes this technology provides a means to address growing awareness and concern for the environment.


For licensing and partnership opportunities, please contact Dr Rahul V Gopalkrishnan at ilorvg@nus.edu.sg