Silk could soon be used to produce more sensitive and flexible body sensors like this one. (Credit: Yingying Zhang)

Scientists are on the cusp of using silk, one of the world’s most coveted fabrics, to develop a more sensitive and flexible generation of wearable body sensors that monitor a slew of body functions in real time. Traditional body sensors, which are usually made with semiconductors, have shown great potential for monitoring human health, but they have limitations. To overcome these limitations, the researchers tried two different strategies.

In one approach, they treated the silk in an inert gas environment with temperatures ranging from 1,112 to 5,432 °F. As a result, the silk became infused with N-doped carbon with some graphitized particles, which is electrically conductive. Using this technique, the scientists have developed strain sensors, pressure sensors, and a dual-mode sensor capable of measuring temperature and pressure simultaneously.

In the other approach, the team fed either graphene or carbon nanotubes to silkworms. Some of these nanoparticles were naturally incorporated into the silk produced by the worms. So far, this method hasn’t produced electrically conductive fibers, but the researchers are still experimenting with this technique and are hopeful they can make it work.

Based on the preliminary results, they want to explore ways to create an integrated set of silk-based, self-sustaining sensors that would be powered by nano-generators. Their work was presented at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.