Combining silk fabric with epoxy creates laminates that can be formed into shapes for medical uses. (Credit: Jiao Wen/Juan Guan)

By combining silk, which is safe for use in the human body, with synthetic compounds, one research team is getting closer to developing new implantable composite materials with the best properties of both. Potential applications could include structures that hold bone in place after surgery or replacements for the cartilage cushions in the knee.

The researchers focus on silk fabric woven from a long, single thread. Silkworms’ cocoons can contain fibers nearly 5,000 feet long, and when used whole in fabric, such a fiber can more effectively distribute mechanical stress than a series of shorter, discrete ones.

The team uses silk from the common, domesticated silkworm Bombyx mori, as well as tougher, more stretchy fibers from the wild species Antheraea pernyi. The researchers combine this fabric with a polymer matrix, often an epoxy, which is used in adhesives. Together, the fabric and the polymer form a laminate — similar to the durable surface covering found on some furniture — which can then be cut into the shapes the researchers need.

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