Strapping a wristband, hanging a lanyard, or putting on a pin or headwear to measure monitor health metrics may sound like no big deal. But remembering and the extra effort required to add a wearable to one’s daily outfit are real-life compliance obstacles. What if, instead of putting on something extra, wearable technology could be woven into articles of clothing? In that scenario, unless you were going to stay naked, you’d be hooked up.
Researchers at Tsinghua University in Beijing, China, discovered how to make silk that conducts electricity. The scientists experimented with feeding silkworms graphene and carbon nanotubes. Silkworms create silk threads from a protein solution produced in their salivary glands. When fed a mixture of graphene and single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWNT), the researchers found the silk fibers produced were twice as strong as ordinary fibers as measured by tensile strength (the amount of stress before breaking). The team also heated the silk fibers to 1,050 °C to carbonize it. The resultant fiber, unlike untreated silk from worms fed a normal diet, conducted electricity.
This work is in early stages. One question bearing further study is to determine the relative amounts of carbon nanotubes and graphene required for various levels of conductivity. The mechanism by which worms incorporate foreign materials into silk also remains to be discovered. The exciting promise of much stronger and electrically conductive clothing, perhaps with a conventional clothing label-sized microcircuitry with sensors, processor, battery power, storage, and wireless components could open a wide range of future applications.