It is highly desirable to replicate a natural silk spinning process in an industrial setting. Natural silk fibers produced by silkworms and spiders have exceptional mechanical properties, which so far have not been matched by artificially produced silk. Furthermore, most of the artificial spinning technologies involve extremely high temperatures and pressures, as well as hazardous solvents. Spider and silkworm silk, on the other hand, is spun at room temperature, low pressures, and uses only water as a solvent.
Although a lot is known about the biological mechanisms involved in the natural silk spinning process, a major roadblock toward the creation of a biomimetic spinning system has been the inability to fabricate fluidic structures on the same size scale as the silk gland (10-100 μm in a large spider).
Researchers at UC Berkeley have developed a biomimetic silk gland using the latest advances in microfabrication and microfluidics. The system captures the geometrical features of the native silk gland, and it uses a porous material allowing mass transport in and out of the silk solution during flow. Similar to the native spinneret, the biomimetic spinneret can alter the pH of a solution flowing through it. This invention opens the way towards replicating natural silk production in an industrial setting, and producing native-quality artificial silk.